R20 Preview: SE Melbourne Phoenix v Melbourne United

When: 3pm (AEDT), Sunday 16 February

Where: Melbourne Arena

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

The last time

Melbourne 96 (Trimble 22, Ili 16, Barlow 13, Goulding 13) d SE Melbourne 95 (Roberson 27, Benson 20, Gibson 10), Round 7, Melbourne Arena

This was a game the Phoenix largely controlled as the undefendable John Roberson and the unlikely Keith Benson tore Melbourne’s defence apart, combining for 47 points at 59 per cent, with Benson’s five blocks and five o-boards making him a dominant force at both ends. But ultimately it was United’s possession game efforts that proved the difference, along with 19 final-quarter points from Melo Trimble and Shawn Long to close out a Throwdown classic.

The now

If Melbourne can beat the Phoenix they will have retrieved what seemed an insurmountable gap to Brisbane after losing their Round 18 nail-biter, and lock in their third straight playoff appearance under Dean Vickerman and successive semi-final showdowns with Sydney. If they achieve that it will be on the back of defence, having allowed just 77.3ppg in their past four games, and 74ppg in their past three wins.

If South East Melbourne break their seven-game losing streak on Sunday it will be on the back of heart. Despite having only pride to play for, the Phoenix have taken in-form sides Sydney and New Zealand down to the wire in the two rounds, all while dealing with the season-ending injury to Mitch Creek. They have plenty to play for in their final game, a chance to claim the season series off Melbourne and end their cross-town rival’s season early.

The stats

- United did not keep a single opponent below 90 points in their opening 15 games. They’ve done so seven times in their next 12 for a 5-2 record

- Melbourne have forced 48 turnovers in their past three games and are +28 on points from turnovers in those contests

- South East Melbourne are -27 in the possession game in this season series, and have taken 33 less field-goal attempts and three less free throws than United

- In this season series the Phoenix lead bench scoring 86-54, however Benson has scored 39 of those points off the pine

The match-ups

John Roberson v Melo Trimble – In Melo’s three games as sixth man he has racked up the numbers, but most importantly he’s helped his team. United are +47 in Trimble’s 83 minutes off the pine, and -12 in the other 37 minutes. Across the opening 24 games, Melbourne were +5 with their point guard on the floor compared to +19 when he rested.

Roberson rarely rests and that’s a good thing for the Phoenix, who are +32 with their superstar on the floor and -103 when he sits. Roberson was -17 on Friday though, heavily targeted by New Zealand and making just 1/6 from deep and committing six turnovers. He’s only averaged 14.7ppg against Melbourne, so he’s got plenty of reasons to finish the season in style.

Adam Gibson v Chris Goulding – In the Phoenix’s hour of need Gibbo has stood tall, as he so often has throughout his underrated career. His past two games have delivered 22 points on 6/8 shooting from long range alongside his ever-relentless and high-IQ defence. SE Melbourne desperately need that three-and-D action if they’re going to dissect United.

Gibson’s job will surely be on former teammate Goulding, who has racked up 43 points in his past two games at an impressive 11/25 from distance, sounding an ominous warning ahead of the playoffs should Melbourne make it. Given they are 8-2 when CG43 scores 20 points or more, if Gibson can’t limit his looks the United appear odds on to progress.

The quotes

Two weeks ago Simon Mitchell laid out his evil plan to end NBL20 – send New Zealand directly to the off-season and then gift his old Melbourne United boss Dean Vickerman an early holiday.

“I’d love to spoil Vicko’s party in the last round of the season,” Mitchell said.

“Me and Deano have known each other since we were kids, and nothing would make me happier right now than to bust my old club out of playoff contention.”

“Me too,” said Mitch Creek, seated beside him with a cheeky grin.

Creek won’t get to play party pooper, having fallen foul of the injury bug, but the Phoenix booted the Breakers from the playoff picture with a tremendously gutsy display in Christchurch, despite the fact they fell agonisingly short.

“That’s our season, unfortunately, in every game bar two but we just don’t have the ability to get over the line at this point of time,” Mitchell said.

“We performed all pre-season without Mitch, so it was more like our early-season team. We talked about it very early in the week as soon as the diagnosis came down that he was going to be out for a month.

“We talked about it being nothing to worry about, next soldier, next guy. Obviously he helps any team that he’s a part of, he’s a wonderful player and we sorely missed him tonight, but at the same time we had a pretty good scoring spread, it gave opportunities for other guys to have the ball in their hands and create.”

They were superb at that, continually charging back at the Breakers, led by the fearless ‘Ads’, Adam Gibson and Kyle Adnam.

But it’s another task altogether to cross the Tasman, recover and repeat the dose against a Melbourne teamed that is locked and loaded at the right time.

“Our senses are heightened, we’re on high alert,” captain Chris Goulding said after United dispatched the Taipans on Thursday.

“There were a couple of lapses but for the most part guys were locked in, we were hungry defensively for a large percentage of the game and then running and attacking, and it’s showing that’s when we’re at our best.”

The boosting of Shea Ili into the starting line-up, a more proactive defensive approach, Jo Lual-Acuil’s emergence and the impressive improvement of Shawn Long at that end of the floor has led to a remarkable transformation of one of the NBL’s leakiest defences.

That was never more evident than with their ability to cover the Taipans vaunted high ball-screen action.

“That’s a team that’s going to challenge the one-five on-ball with Machado and Oliver, it’s a tough cover and I thought as a group we were better, behind the level of the basketball we were better,” Vickerman said.

“We said we might give up a few more threes than we have in previous games, but locking down the middle cylinder we did a better job tonight.”

Expect a not-dissimilar strategy against the Phoenix, where John Roberson is public enemy number one for any defence, and Ili and Co will need to disrupt him early, run him off the three-point line and then shut off Dane Pineau and Co on the o-boards.

“I couldn’t tell you if that’s going to be the group we’ll start on Sunday, but I think Shea on Roberson is something that can be good for us,” Vickerman said coyly.

Melbourne are in a good position. Their destiny is in their own hands. No calculators are needed, just a W, but Goulding isn’t putting anything in the books yet with a highly-respected Phoenix line-up standing between them and the playoff door.

Again, he said it comes back to defence, and while this is a SE Melbourne home game, it’s still in United’s gym.

“Just the aggression, having a team come into your home court, you don’t want to let them get easy looks and start off and get their confidence going. I don’t think we were amazing at the start but we did a good enough job of keeping them honest,” he said on Thursday.

“I think it just shows, even with those little lapses it shows we can be so much better, which is promising. If we can get this win on Sunday it gives us a good chance…

“If we come out with the intent we showed for the most part in this game, fix some things and have it a little bit prolonged we’ll be a tough team.

“But you can’t pencil in any wins, and this is when previously in the year you might have said ‘they should get that game’, that’s when we’ve faltered, so our mindset has to be we've got to flip the switch tomorrow.”


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