R18 Preview: Perth Wildcats vs Melbourne United

When: 7.30pm (AEST), Monday 4 April, 2022

RAC Arena, Perth

ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sports NZ

Who won the last time?
Perth 97
(Norton 26, Law 20, Cotton 19) d Melbourne 87 (Lual-Acuil 16, Dellavedova 15, Hukporti 14) – Round 15, John Cain Arena, Melbourne

Just as it looked like United would gap the rest of the NBL with their 13-4 record and eight of their final 11 games in Melbourne, the Wildcats waltzed into town and put on a clinic. With Mitch Norton dominant on drives, back-cuts and from in the dunker spot, Perth dominated the vaunted United interior, pulling away from their hosts in the second half.

What happened last start?

That’s becoming a worrying trend for Melbourne, who have struggled to adjust to the officiating changes and have given up 90 points or more in four of their past five contests. With the NBL13-type physicality suddenly off the cards, can they find a new defensive recipe on the run that allows them to generate the transition scores they have relied upon?

After going 9-5 in 14-straight road games and moving to 14-6 with a win over New Zealand on return to The Jungle, Perth’s Round 17 was a disaster, capitulating in the final two minutes against Tassie and then blown off the floor by Sydney in the opening term. Despite that, losses by South East Melbourne and the JJs this round mean a win Monday night will all-but lock in a playoff berth.

Who’s in form?

Luke Travers – The loss to Sydney was embarrassing, but Travers was one Cat who could hold his head high, finishing with 20 points at 54 per cent, 3/8 from deep, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Perth need their young tyro ready to find cracks in the defence, as they are 11-3 when he dishes multiple assists and 9-3 when he shoots multiple free throws.

Jo Lual-Acuil – While JLA isn’t producing his scintillating mid-season numbers, his past three have produced 16ppg at 51 per cent. In his best four-game stretch he scored 25.3ppg at 68 per cent, averaging 10.8 attempts from inside five feet, compared to just 7.0 attempts from close range in the past four outings. United need to get their star big more chances to attack the hoop.

Who needs to be?

Melbourne’s starters – When you see Lual-Acuil, Jack White, Caleb Agada, Chris Goulding and Matt Dellavedova, you see a great starting quintet. But last time against Perth that group was outscored 86-56 by their counterparts while shooting just 39 per cent. In two losses to Hawks, Melbourne’s starters were -36, and now they head west without Agada.

Perth’s rebounding – Remarkably, for a dynasty made of glass, the Wildcats rank seventh in offensive rebounding (27%) and last in d-boards (70%), and their current two-game losing streak has delivered just 26 and 67 per cent respectively. Those numbers were 33 and 72 per cent in the Round 15 win over Melbourne, statistically the NBL’s best rebounding team.

Who’s statting up?

 - After 16 rounds, Melbourne and Perth had a combined record of 29-11. Since then, they’ve gone a combined 0-4, losing by an average of 11.3 points

 - In United’s past three losses they’ve leaked 76 points per game from two-pointers and free throws, giving up 56 per cent shooting inside the arc

 - The Wildcats average 92 points against Melbourne, shooting 53 per cent from inside and scoring 69.5 points from ‘ones and twos’. The rest of the league averages 79.7 points against United, shooting 47 per cent from inside and scoring 55.1 from ‘ones and twos’

 - In the final two minutes against Tasmania and opening 21 minutes against Sydney, the Wildcats were outscored 80-44. That’s an opposition scoring rate of 139 points per 40 minutes

Who’s matching up?

Bryce Cotton v Chris Goulding – Last week against Sydney, Cotton was held to 5 made field goals and 2 assists. This season he has averaged a combined 23 in those two categories, with his previous low being eight in the season opener against Adelaide. He also made just one triple, and Perth are 3-7 the past two seasons when he doesn’t hit multiple treys.

While Cats fans assume the MVP will bounce back hard, Melbourne fans have been waiting for Goulding to do likewise. After a five-game stretch averaging 10.6ppg at 23 per cent from deep, CG43 went 4/7 against Illawarra, but had only 3 points on two attempts in the final term when the game needed to be won. United need a hot CG to turn their form around.

Who’s talking the talk?

Last time the Wildcats headed to Melbourne it sure was an emphatic statement.

Running up 97 points on the league’s best defence, scoring 54 points in the paint, getting to the foul line 28 times, grabbing 13 offensive boards, while holding United to 40 per cent shooting and gifting them just 13 charity shots.

Their 14-4 opening showed a team with intent, and whenever Melbourne challenged they had the answers.

“They jumped us again at the start,” Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman said.

“That’s two games in a row they’ve come out and executed their stuff really well to get the shots that we wanted. We played catch-up most of that first half.”

Melbourne got back within two in the first quarter, came from seven down to take the lead at half-time, and did the same to draw level in the final quarter.

Whatever they tried though, Bryce Cotton, Mitch Norton and Vic Law had the answers, as did Perth’s team defence in one of their best displays of the season.

“What I was most happy about was our persistence with our game plan and trying to stay solid, not take big swings, try to do the little things, stick to our system,” coach Scott Morrison said.

“There were maybe two or three possessions where we missed block-outs and could have done a better job, but over the course of 40 minutes it was one of our better efforts against a really good team.”

The story was very different last round against Sydney, where the 'Cats were anything but solid early as the Kings led by 21 at quarter-time, 25 at the main break and extended that to 31 in the third.

Compounded with a home loss to Tasmania two nights earlier, it was a shellacking that made the 'Cats look squarely in the mirror.

“I'm not sure it’s a bad thing because we’ve got to change our behaviours, and if you think everything’s just a one-off situation then you're probably not going to make an effort to change,” Morrison said.

“We’re in there talking about what our goals should be, we’re a long way from reaching those goals playing how we’re playing. We've really got out-worked and out-executed four games straight, we just got lucky to win a couple of them.”

Now they face Chris Goulding and United with Mitch Norton still sidelined, adding to the pressure the perennial finalists feel.

Norton has averaged 23.5ppg against United this year, shooting 67 per cent inside and outside, while dishing 4apg and turning the ball over just once in 57 minutes.

Melbourne simply hadn’t found a way to defend Cotton and Law without leaving cracks for Mitch to slip into. Yet while his loss is enormous, Melbourne come to town without do-it-all import Caleb Agada after a sickening fall against Illawarra that made everyone but the replay centre wince.

Regardless, United is still able to deploy Shea Ili, Yudai Baba and Matthew Dellavedova on Cotton, while Jack White will go head-to-head with Vic Law, setting up a brilliant showdown.

Of course, Melbourne fans are wincing at their team’s fall from grace, back-to-back losses to the Hawks mean another defeat in Perth will drop them to third place, only ahead of the Wildcats in fourth by percentage.

Coach Vickerman isn’t too stressed, however, understanding the value of these high-quality games leading into the playoffs, and how close his team came to toppling the red-hot Hawks.

“A real high-quality game, happy with some of the improvements that we made from last week, our offence was better, we screened a lot better and moved the basketball,” he said.

“Real disappointment in the last five minutes that we weren’t able to generate good enough looks down the stretch and a part of that is (Illawarra).”

Now they get to do it again, 48 hours later and 2700kms away.

“We go over (to Perth) 1-1 and just like this game here it’s a series deciding game, against a team on their home floor,” Vickerman said.

“It’s going to be at this kind of level we played at tonight and we've just got to find a way to make sure we close out the game better.”


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