R19 Preview: Illawarra Hawks vs Melbourne United

When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Tuesday 18 May

WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong

ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand; Twitch

The last time
Melbourne 87
(Lual-Acuil 15, Landale 13, Baba 11, Goulding 11) d Illawarra 76 (Jessup 91, Harvey 17, Froling 11, Ogilvy 11) - Round 14, John Cain Arena, Melbourne

Illawarra never had a chance in this Round 14 clash, Melbourne sprinting to a 12-point lead late in the first quarter, extending that advantage to 18 shortly before half-time, and then never letting the visitors back within single figures. United were a blistering 6/7 from the arc in the opening term, Mason Peatling, Jock Landale, Chris Goulding, Yudai Baba and Shea Ili all getting in on three-point party to blow the Hawks out of the water.

The now
It’s not party time for Melbourne any more. Their past four games have been against the second and third-placed Wildcats and Phoenix for a 2-2 return, and if they drop Tuesday’s clash with the Hawks in fourth, they could be out of first place by Wednesday with serious questions to answer. Their formerly impenetrable defence has wavered the past two games, and with this their seventh game in 21 days, is there enough gas in the tank to turn that around?

While Illawarra would love to run up a big score on United, recent history suggests that is unlikely to be the case. In a throwback to his South East Melbourne Magic days, Brian Goorjian has turned the Hawks into the grinders of the NBL, going 3-3 since Round 13 despite not hitting 80 points once. Can they beat Melbourne in a defensive slog? Given a loss will drop them to fifth, and this is the start of seven games in 17 days to end the season, they really need to.

The stats

 - Illawarra scored more than 82 points in 11 of their first 15 games of #NBL 21, but have done so just once in their past 13 outings

 - Since Melbourne scored 87 points at 51 per cent on them in Round 14, the Hawks have allowed just 70.8ppg at 39 per cent, with no opponent reaching 80 points

 - In that four-game stretch, Illawarra have won points from turnovers 71-35, and in the season series with United they lead that stat 47-38

 - Melbourne are 3-0 and +24 in this season series. They have outscored the Hawks by 24 from the three-point line, shooting 41 per cent to 32 per cent from deep

The key men

Tyler Harvey – In Illawarra’s lone win over Melbourne, Harvey smoked with 23 points at 44 per cent from range, four assists and just the one turnover. In their three losses, he’s averaged 16.7ppg at 26 per cent from deep, 2.7 assists and 3.0 turnovers. Here’s the deal – when Harvey scores 23 points or more the Hawks are 10-1. When he scores between 16 and 22 they are 5-5. When he doesn’t make it to 16 they are 0-7. United need to shut him down.

Shea Ili – Of course, Ili will be a big part that defensive job on Harvey, but what he can do offensively is also important. Melbourne are 9-0 over the past two seasons when Shea hits multiple triples, and he nailed 19/36 across his first 15 games this season. He’s just 1/12 in the seven games since though, and when he’s shooting with confidence it forces the defence to adjust, and allows the speedy Kiwi PG to create good looks for his teammates.

The quotes

It hasn’t often been the case this season, but Melbourne United’s defence was the issue in their Throwdown loss to Keifer Sykes and the Phoenix.

“I thought they were a lot better and a lot more precise in the way they attacked us in the half-court,” point guard Mitch McCarron said.

“We had some trouble guarding that high on-ball and Keifer was super-aggressive and was successful, shot the ball really well form the inside and the outside, so we’ll have to make some adjustments if we come across them again.”

Of course, Tyler Harvey and the Hawks would have been playing close attention to SE Melbourne’s patience and repeat use of ball-screens, so United better be ready to adjust quickly. McCarron is confident they can, even with Chris Goulding in doubt for this clash.

“This group loves playing together and in the past we’ve been decent at responding to a loss, whether we've been disappointed with our performance or whatever we bounce back well as a group and this will be a test of that,” he said.

“Turn around to a team that’s got a couple of wins in a row in Illawarra, and we’ll have to play well to win.”

While there are defensive issues to fine tune, especially if Yudai Baba is still sidelined, those woes were exacerbated by an old issue at the other end of the floor.

“The things we needed to do better, the first half we had nine turnovers again and that became quite a big factor in the points off turnovers,” coach Dean Vickerman said.

The Phoenix rank first in the NBL for turnovers forced, and the aggressive Hawks sit second.

“Their coverage in on-balls has been super-aggressive of late and obviously against Adelaide they forced a lot of turnovers,” Vickerman said.

“(Saturday) night I thought at times New Zealand got the better of it and were able to move the basketball and create really good offence out of the aggressive coverage.

“Goorj made the change to go to show coverage and recover and uses his zone a little bit more. We’re going to face multiple different coverages and I think there has been an improvement in this group, when we see a coverage how we attack it.

“We haven't seen a zone for a little while so it will be good to test ourselves against some zone as well, so looking forward to the challenge of going up there.”

For an Illawarra team that looks very different offensively to what was expected, it’s currently all about the defence, led by Justin Simon, who has pinched 11 steals and blocked six shots in his past four games.

“From the start of the season to now where our team is, from the marquee guys, with the length of the season, (Simon) has shined and stepped up and kept our season alive, not just tonight but over the last three or four weeks,” Goorjian said.

For Goorj, his young team has followed that standard all year and that’s allowed them to hang tough, with a win on Tuesday moving them a game clear of Sydney inside the top four.

“Every one of these games now, and they’ve all been close, we’re playing pressure basketball and a lot of these young guys have never been in games late-season that matter,” Goorjian said.

“We’ve got some things to address but the culture of the team is the defence and the effort and the togetherness. To be where we are in that area in such a short period of time in a first-year team is something to be proud of.

“I’ve been screaming that out through the four losses in a row, through the highs and the lows this team has had that, and it’s coming through now when it matters the most.”

The Boomers coach knows, however, that to beat Melbourne, and advance deep into the post-season, they can’t just be good at one end.

“We’ve got to get better. It’s great to be playing this D, and we’re going to have to to have any chance, but we’re going to have to get a little more fluid on the offensive end,” he said.

“There’s a lot of room, even down this back stretch, for growth. The winning makes everybody listen, everybody more accountable, but we do have to get better to get to where we want to go.”


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