R2 Preview: Melbourne United vs SE Melbourne Phoenix

When: 1pm (AEDT), Sunday 12 December, 2021

John Cain Arena, Melbourne

ESPN; Kayo Freebies; 10 Peach; 10 Play; Sky Sports NZ

Who won the last time?
Melbourne 84
(Landale 27, Goulding 14, McCarron 11) d South East Melbourne 74 (Te Rangi 22, Creek 19, Sykes 15) - Game 3, Semi-Finals, 2021, Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney

The Phoenix demolished Melbourne late in Game 2 of last season’s semis, and when Izayah Le’afa nailed a triple to put them 32-15 ahead early in Game 3, the new kids on the block were effectively on a 68-32 run across 27 minutes and seemingly headed for the Grand Final.

However, some basic breakdowns on D let Jock Landale loose, and 11 quick points from the Grand Final MVP had United back in the game by half-time. South East Melbourne had no answers for Landale and Chris Goulding after interval as the champs marched into the decider.  

What happened last week?

Melbourne returned to the scene of that triumph last Sunday to face Sydney, and while their defence was sound for the most part, without Goulding, Dave Barlow and Jack White they simply couldn’t make the scoreboard tick fast enough to prevail. With key veterans out, United got excellent contributions from DPs Zac Triplett and the impressive David Okwera.

The Phoenix and New Zealand played the game of the season to date on Friday. After leading by 13 early, Simon Mitchell’s men missed a series of easy finishes and got sloppy on the d-boards to open the door for the Breakers. While the full weight of Mitch Creek slammed it shut, the Breakers made their hosts work for 40 minutes and exposed some defensive ball-screen issues.

Who’s in form?

Okwera & Triplett – When only two development players have a positive plus/minus it tells the story of Melbourne’s season opener, while last year’s DP surprise packet Mason Peatling was great on the boards with nine rebounds, including five o-boards. United’s defence held Sydney to 9/32 from range, just 13 free-throw attempts and forced 20 turnovers, suggesting the building block of last year’s title is in place even with key pieces missing.

Mitch Creek – It was one of the great offensive performances of modern times, 36 points at 59 per cent and 6/7 from long range, including nine points in the final four minutes and a clutch game-sealing trey. Creek now has 55 points in 62 minutes to open the season, and last year’s finals proved Peatling can’t guard him, it will be a stretch for Barlow on return, and while Okwera would take the challenge on, Melbourne must do this by committee.

Who needs to be?

Matthew Dellavedova – While United want their star recruit being aggressive, that can’t mean blazing away from the arc. Delly treys are rare as hen’s teeth lately, his 0/5 return last Sunday meaning he is now 7/43 in his 20 NBL, Olympic and NBA matches in the past year. The Boomers star did look good attacking the paint off ball-screens, however, shooting 3/6 in the key and opening up teammates, and that needs to be his bread and butter.

Xavier Munford – While Creek stole the show on Friday, Munford was a picture of efficiency with 17 points at 58 per cent, six assists and just one turnover. His ability to create against set defence, finish at a high clip inside and find open shooters will be crucial against United’s stingy D. Just as important will be his ability to limit Chris Goulding’s looks, and it will be intriguing to see whether Munford or Le’afa gets first crack if CG43 is cleared to play.

Who’s statting up?

 - Munford is currently shooting 65 per cent inside the arc and averaging 14.5 points from the paint and free-throw line

 - The Phoenix have nailed 21 triples at 43 per cent across the opening two games. The rest of the NBL is averaging 8.3 treys at 29 per cent

 - Melbourne made just 19 two-point buckets from 45 attempts against the Kings, and are averaging the second-fewest inside makes across the league from the most attempts

 - After United trailed Sydney by 21 midway through the second term, they held the Kings to 24 points in 15 minutes on 9/27 shooting and forced 9 turnovers

Who’s matching up?

Jo Lual-Acuil v Zhou Qi – After a big build-up, Lual-Acuil’s 4-of-13 shooting night against Sydney didn’t exactly scream, ‘Jock who?’ However, have no doubt Jo would have noted Zhou’s struggles defending the ball-screen against Hugo Besson and New Zealand, so expect plenty of pops and short rolls from where he can exploit Qi’s lack of lateral quickness.

The Phoenix centre received limited supply on Friday night, taking just three field-goal attempts in almost 23 minutes. When the Breakers went to a switching defence, South East Melbourne stopped moving the basketball to open up passing lanes to their big man. Whatever defences Melbourne throw at them, the ‘Nix must keep feeding Qi in the paint.

Who’s talking the talk?

Simon Mitchell is talking the talk, don’t worry about that.

“The Throwdowns are great, it’s a great event, we don’t like each other,” he said.

“Deano and I get along, and Juddy and Deano, there are people who are genuinely friends off the court, but (when) I turn up to the gym, I don’t like them.

“It’s an organisation I respect highly, it’s an organisation I had wonderful years in, but I like us, and I really want success for our team, for our players and front office, and all our workers and our fans, and Melbourne’s one of those teams that’s going to stand between us and what I want for these people, so they piss me off.

“Good on them for winning last year, it’s on, let’s go.”

The rivalry is so intense that it made Mitch Creek forget about the huge role he played in the Boomers undefeated run to the final four of the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup alongside Matthew Dellavedova, Dave Barlow and Chris Goulding.

“I haven't really played with them, I didn’t make the Olympic team,” he said.

“I don’t really care about what they're doing over there, I'm focused on us and what we’ve got to achieve.”

If they want to achieve success in Sunday’s first Throwdown of the season they need to get the defence right to create opportunities to run, as the Phoenix have some serious weapons in the open floor.

According to Creek though, putting the full package together is still a work in progress for his team despite a quality win over the Breakers on Friday.

“We kept the scoreboard ticking over where last week our offence sucked and our defence was awesome,” he said.

“This week our defence sucked and our offence was awesome, so at least we’ve got both, we’ve just got to try and put them together.”

Melbourne are still trying to put their offence together, welcoming back Barlow to add firepower to a team that shot 7/28 from deep in Sydney instead of consistently putting heat on the rim.

However, coach Dean Vickerman isn’t interested in another heave fest which allowed the Kings to run-and-gun.

“They do a good job of making you shoot some semi-contested threes. Some people might look at those and say those are really good shots, but when we took a bunch of them – five or six in a row – and missed them all, we had to change our theory and either go into the post or put our feet in the paint and we didn’t make that adjustment quick enough.

“There was a lot of shooting and missing, and when you don’t have that shooting it clogs the floor up.”

As many as eight United players will get their first Throwdown experience on Sunday, including the well-travelled Dellavedova, who can’t wait for the challenge.

“I’m looking forward to playing in front of a full, packed, loud crowd,” Delly said.

“This is an incredible venue… I’ve heard a lot from the coaches and the boys about what it’s going to be like, and I’ve heard a lot about the fans at John Cain Arena.”

“It’s going to be an intense, physical battle … they got us in the pre-season the other day, so we need to get this one on Sunday.”


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