R13 Preview: Melbourne United v Brisbane Bullets

When: 5pm (AEDT), Sunday 29 December

Where: Melbourne Arena

Broadcast: SBS Viceland; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand

The last time

Melbourne 108 (Trimble 25, Smith-Milner 19, Goulding 14) d Brisbane 94 (Cadee 18, Sobey 17, Gliddon 14, Patterson 14), Round 8, Melbourne Arena

Don’t be fooled by the final margin, this was a cracking contest that Melbourne led by just four points with 100 seconds to play before Melo Trimble and Chris Goulding put the result beyond doubt with back-to-back bombs. That pair were game-changers earlier in the contest too, combining for 12 points in a 16-2 third-quarter run from which the Bullets never quite recovered, hampered by an unthinkable 4-of-19 shooting night from Lamar Patterson.

The now

United have finally managed to hamper their opponents, holding Illawarra, Perth and Cairns to 73, 74 and 77 points after not keeping any opponent below 90 points in their opening 15 contests. Melbourne have played at a slower tempo – though only sometimes intentionally – and it has given their defensive transition a chance. They forced the Wildcats and Hawks into 37 per cent shooting, then held the Taipans to 41 per cent shooting and grabbed 71 per cent of their d-boards, but couldn’t shoot themselves to victory.

Has any team shot themselves in the foot more than Brisbane this season? Andrej Lemanis’ men have given up the three biggest leads of NBL20, all at home, and had they maintained a steady flow of oxygen in those second halves they would be 10-7 and playing United for outright third place. They are not, however, and if they can’t win in Melbourne – where they are 1-7 since returning to the NBL – they’ll likely need eight wins from their last 10 games to make the playoffs, and that’s close to mission impossible.

The stats

- Brisbane’s defence leaked 59 points to United after half-time in their Round 8 loss. The Bullets are giving up an average of 51 points after intermission in their 10 losses

- The Bullets starters score just 60.1ppg, eighth in the NBL. Melbourne’s first five leads the league at 73.7ppg. In Round 8 both starting groups scored 66, but United won bench scoring 42-28

- Melbourne have averaged 65.3 field-goal attempts and 20.3 free throws in the past three outings, down from 74.5 and 23 in their opening 15 games

- United have given opponents just 17.7 free-throw attempts past three outings after conceding 25.5 over the rest of the season

The match-ups

Shawn Long v Will Magnay – With Matt Hodgson seemingly unable to adjust to the guard-friendly refereeing changes this season, much has been left on Magnay’s shoulders, and the 21-year-old has responded with 22 rebounds and 6 blocks in his past two games. He’ll need to be just as hungry for glass against Long, who has caromed 39 rebounds – including 12 o-boards – in his past three contests. Mr Double Double had just 5 and 3 last time against Brisbane, so expect him to be aggressive from tip-off.

Melo Trimble v Nathan Sobey – Melo’s struggles against his old team continued on Boxing Day, shooting 4-of-13, coughing up 4 turnovers and not managing a single assist in a stinging loss. Trimble has happier memories against Brisbane, rocking 25 points and 7 dimes while getting to the foul line 10 times. Sobey hasn’t delivered as advertised at either end for the Bullets this season, but his 29 points and 6 assists were almost game-winning against NZ, now he just needs to make better decisions in crunch time.

The quotes

It was a key moment that summed up the brilliant Round 8 clash between Melbourne and Brisbane.

With the Bullets on the charge, having closed a 13-point deficit to two in the final term, United reserve Tohi Smith-Milner received a pass from Chris Goulding late in the shot clock.

Noticing Brisbane’s Lamar Patterson contesting his shot, Smith-Milner stuck his leg out in Patterson’s path and then slumped to the floor.

While it confirmed there is unlikely to be an acting career in Smith-Milner’s future, it was a massive play in the context of the game, the crafty Kiwi nailing all three free throws to trigger a 12-5 run and give Melbourne space.

It capped off a career night for Smith-Milner, who scored 18 points at 100 per cent from the floor and 8-of-9 from the charity stripe after the Bullets identified him as a low priority.

“You pick and choose a bit who you are going to make beat you and he stepped up and did what he needed to do,” Andrej Lemanis said.

“Until this point he hadn’t been shooting it well but we know that’s something he can do. He made plays and good on him for doing that, but for us I think it comes down to some of the breakdowns on other guys.”

While Smith-Milner went 1-of-1 from long range, David Barlow, Melo Trimble and Chris Goulding went 9-of-16 as they drove Melbourne’s game-winning runs.

“We had some defensive breakdowns, just took some shortcuts that gave good looks to good shooters,” Lemanis said.

“You can’t go under on Chris Goulding on a on-ball screen, or coming off David Barlow who’s a 50 per cent three-point shooter to help in on someone who’s driving about to shoot a tough lay-up, just some smarts stuff like that.”

It is those kinds of brain fades that have left the Bullets’ season on the precipice, and they're not learning the required lessons.

On Friday night, Taylor Braun inexplicably helped off Finn Delany in the strong-side corner when Brisbane were three-points in front in the final minute. Nek Minute. The flying Finn buries a trey to tie the game.

Then Lamar Patterson decided to dribble the ball in a double team rather than finding the open man, then reached out and gave the referee the opportunity to call an unsportsmanlike foul and set up Scott Hopson’s game-winner.

While Lemanis is no doubt frustrated by repeated poor mental errors, he also knows full well that teams must move on quickly from heart-breaking losses.

“It's a test now for us how we come out on Sunday,” he said.

“There’s nothing we can do about this game, it’s important we come out emotionally strong on Sunday and get back on the horse and get after it.”

Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman has his share of frustrations he’s trying to deal with after watching his inconsistent team drop four of their past seven contests.

“If I had the answer to that one maybe I would have solved it by now,” Vickerman said after falling to Cairns on Boxing Day.

“I thought we set some standards in Perth and I loved hearing form comments from people who watched us play, ‘Wow you guys looked really locked in’.

“We talked about looking to repeat and improve those standards but we let ourselves down.”

Melbourne took a different approach in Perth, playing methodical basketball at both ends to take the Red Army out of the game and exploit the Wildcats’ defence through ball movement and penetration.

When they tried to resume their normal high-paced service against Cairns, the couldn’t regain the need for speed.

“We wanted to find pace in the game all night, we thought they're down a player, we want to keep pushing it, but in the first half we just didn’t drive to really get what we wanted at the offensive end,” Vickerman said.

“I thought our best offence in the second half was still our pace and pushing the basketball and trying to get our feet in the paint and trying to create some opportunities to go ahead and share the basketball after that.”

Both Melbourne and Brisbane will be looking to push the ball in this contest. For the Bullets, a win gets them back within a game of fourth place, while a loss for United would all-but end their chances of finishing top two.

To avoid that happening, Vickerman wants his team in attack mode.

“There is still some leadership that we need from everybody, me included and the players on the floor. We were just looking around too much tonight and we needed to come together and say this is what we’re in, this is what we’re doing,” he said.

“We’ve got a system of offence right now and we've to commit to it, and when we've shown we commit to it we’re pretty good, but when we stay away from it that’s when we have some trouble.”


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