Hungry Jack's NBL
R13 Preview: Cairns Taipans vs Melbourne United
When: 3pm (AEDT), Sunday 27 February, 2022
Where: Cairns Convention Centre
Broadcast: ESPN; Kayo; 10 Peach; 10 Play; Sky Sports NZ
Who won last time?
Melbourne 101 (Landale 19, Hopson 18, Barlow 16) d Cairns 76 (Djeric 16, Deng 13, Dufelmeier 13) – Round 20 2021 , Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney
With Melbourne in lockdown, United took their home game to Sydney and locked down the Taipans, making light work of a late tune-up for the NBL21 playoffs, taking a 29-13 quarter-time lead behind 10 points from Jock Landale, before cruising home to an easy win.
What happened last start?
It was a similar story last start for Melbourne, destroying New Zealand’s resistance with a 60-33 opening half as Caleb Agada dominated all over the court, then putting the foot down with a 24-11 third term where United downed 5 triples and held NZ to 3/13 from the field.
It was a clinic in ball movement at the offensive end and aggressive team D at the other.
Cairns put on their own clinic early against the Bullets, racing to a 32-19 lead after 10 minutes, and they still led by 10 at half-time. But their half-court offensive woes went to a new level after interval, coach Adam Forde still struggling to find sets that utilise his players’ strengths. Despite that, a late contested Scott Machado three delivered a much-needed W.
Who’s in form?
Stephen Zimmerman – The big Zimm may not know who Phar Lap is, but he’s got a heart a similar size, pulling in 26 boards in the past two games, along with 30 points at 65 per cent. With Jo Lual-Acuil remaining in Melbourne for the birth of his child, Zimmerman's battle with Ariel Hukporti takes on added significance.
Caleb Agada – When Agada has been on the bench, United have been outscored by 9 points. The next closest is Chris Goulding, and Melbourne are +35 with him seated. Agada was at his best against NZ with 17 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 triples, but it’s his ability to stay in front of Tahj McCall in transition that could be most important Sunday.
Who needs to be?
Bul Kuol – In Cairns past two wins their exciting rookie has drained 12/16 from deep and averaged 20ppg. In the four games between those triumphs he averaged 8.5ppg on 8/30 for outside. The Taipans often win when they hit from the arc, they need Kuol connecting from deep and applying his lockdown defence to Goulding or Agada to be a chance on Sunday.
Jack White – Over the past seven games, White has averaged 12.1ppg and 8.7rpg in 24 minutes, as well as providing outstanding rim protection and pick-and-roll defence. Without Lual-Acuil and against a team who attack the paint and crash the o-boards, White’s athleticism to cover Majok Deng on the arc and recover inside will be important.
Who’s statting up?
- In their past three wins, Cairns have nailed 11.7 three-pointers at 38 per cent. Across the rest of the season they’ve hit just 6.9 threes at 27 per cent
- In their past three Ws, the Snakes have grabbed 14.3 offensive rebounds at 36 per cent. Across the rest of the season they’ve averaged 9.2 at 27 per cent
- In their four losses, Melbourne have given up 44 per cent from the field, 36 per cent from three and 24.8 free-throw attempts. In wins those numbers are 37, 29 and 16.5
- In their two worst defensive quarters of the past five games, United have leaked an average of 50.8 points. In their two lowest-scoring quarters of the past five games, Cairns have averaged just 24.6, including 22 in the second half against Brisbane
Who’s matching up?
Scott Machado v Matt Dellavedova & Shea Ili – That exhaling noise you heard was fans in the Far North breathing a sigh of relief as they watched Scotty peel off 17 points and 7 dimes, and make a pair of clutch plays for the W. While coach Forde is still figuring out how to maximise Machado’s talent, Friday’s performance showed he is returning to his best.
There’s no time for Machado to take a breath, however, as he readies for the relentless D of Dellavadova and Ili, who held the Breakers’ trio of PGs to 8 assists and 8 turnovers last Sunday. In nine meetings against United, the Taipans MVP has averaged 15.2 points, 7.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds, showing he is comfortable executing against the champs.
Who’s talking the talk?
The Taipans have done plenty of talking about their offence, it’s walking it that has been the issue.
“I’m searching for answers in regards to how we can help score,” coach Forde said.
“We've changed it up a little bit on court, we've changed it up with our rotations, we've changed it up with how we prepare and manage the game.”
It hasn’t all been bad news, the Snakes averaging 25.3 points in their past three opening quarters to be +31 over those 30 minutes, but it’s all been downhill from there, leaving Forde to joke ruefully.
“That’s our secret right, try to score all our points in the first quarter and then hold on for dear life,” he laughed after the win over Brisbane.
“We struggled to tick the scoreboard over in the third or the fourth but what we’re trying to hang our hat on is defence, and everything else is a learning curve.”
They haven't been sitting idly by hoping for their luck to change.
“We’re trying to put in a few things differently on the structural side of offence, it was great and then there were some teething problems naturally because we only brought it in recently,” Forde said.
“If we can hold it down defensively, which we’ve for the most part done a considerable job for the whole season, the offence will slowly but surely come.”
Those changes have been clunky, however. In the final term against the Bullets, Forde had a line-up of Keanu Pinder, Majok Deng, Mirko Djeric, Tajh McCall and Scott Machado on the floor.
As the clock ticked down, Machado was engaged in a wing on-ball with Deng, where Deng could only pop to the corner, while the only true non-shooter in McCall was standing at the top of the key, allowing the defence to sag.
Not once in that period did Machado run an on-ball with Pinder, the type of athlete who can sky for Scotty’s lobs ala Cam Oliver, forcing the defence to adjust and open up other passing lanes for the pint-sized point guard.
It was bafflingly bad execution that was made to look even worse by Brisbane, who stacked one side of the floor, put Robert Franks in the opposite corner, sent Tyrell Harrison diving to the hoop of an on-ball, and when the defence collapsed Jason Cadee found his import for a wide-open three.
It was a stark contrast in coaching the puts the heat on Forde to get it right. Most of all, he needs to make McCall more dangerous away from the ball, potentially in the dunker spot, so he is attacking the cup rather than spraying up seven threes like against Brisbane.
“I feel like he probably sacrificed some real good scoring opportunities and settled for that shot, the good thing is I've had some experience in the past with some non-shooting guards that we can go back into the playbook and look at the old Gleeson era,” Forde said.
“We know there’s a couple he turned down and shot, whether that was through frustration, he's going to have to navigate that mental side of it, but from our perspective is what you’re really good at, we want to keep going back to that.”
Of course, if Cairns can’t put the right horses in the right spots against Melbourne, the lane will be permanently clogged and scoring will be like pulling teeth with Ariel Hukporti and Jack White guarding the paint.
After some uncharacteristic defensive moments against Tasmania, SE Melbourne and the Wildcats, Dean Vickerman’s men put some serious clamps on New Zealand last Sunday.
“The goal was to get back and play some of the defence that we really saw early and mid-year, we had a goal that we wanted to hold this team to and I thought we were pretty relentless at that,” he said.
“I just liked the consistency of effort.”
Yet while the defence had slipped in recent times, the offence has made strong progress, averaging 98.3ppg in the past three outings, which a delectable 24 assists per night, culminating in a pass-a-thon against New Zealand where eight United players dished a dime.
“Having 31 assists is certainly something we've been preaching about how we move the basketball, how we get others involved and share it. I thought everyone was into the celebration of rewarding that extra ball movement tonight,” Vickerman said.
“Once (Agada) put his feet in the paint, just really good decision making, extra passes and we see Delly and Shea and everybody did it. I’m not sure if this club’s had 31 assists since I've been here, so really pleased with that.”
The ladder leaders will be hunting blood again in Cairns, and White issued an warning to the league that they're not content with the current three-game streak.
“The first time we lost two games at the start of the year we had a pretty good response and won eight in a row, and just proud of the group and how we responded (this time), we continued to focus on the things that made us successful during that eight-game winning streak,” he said.
“Obviously happy to come away with three wins, but we’re still being critical of those games, often times when you win you can look past some things where we can continue to get better.
“Definitely excited for these games coming up.”