Melbourne United veteran sharpshooter Chris Goulding and coach Dean Vickerman. (Image Credit: Blair Burns)

The NBL play-ins are in the rearview mirror, which means the semifinal series are here, where only two teams will continue their journey towards winning the NBL championship.

Firstly, it’s regular-season ladder leaders Melbourne United up against the never-say-die Illawarra Hawks starting Thursday night at John Cain Arena.

United have had three weeks off to recharge, whereas the Hawks are coming off a 72-hour turnaround from their edge-of-the-seat gripping 88-85 victory over the New Zealand Breakers.

In the regular season, United won all three meetings, two coming by double-digits – 101-91 on October 20 and 96-84 on October 29.

But don’t be fooled by the first two encounters, as Illawarra were right in the contest until the final minutes before Melbourne pulled away.

On the final day of the regular season (February 18), Illawarra threw everything at Melbourne, falling short 92-87.

This resurgent group has nothing to lose, as they aim to win their first playoff series since 2017 – defeating the Adelaide 36ers 2-1.

Highly respected NBL play-by-play commentator Jack Heverin believes if the Hawks can silence the parochial John Cain Arena crowd early, they’ll have an insurmountable amount of belief to capture game one.

“But one thing that they’ve got, certainly in game one, Illawarra is a chance to hit Melbourne hard early,” Heverin told The Inner Sanctum.

“A chance to jump them. Melbourne hasn’t played for the best part of three weeks now. Now you don’t forget how to play basketball at that time. But they may just be a little bit slow coming out of the gate. So I think Illawarra’s best chance, if we’re talking about game one is in the first half.

“If they can put a bit of a gap between themselves and Melbourne at half-time, then Melbourne have got to start to play the catchup game.

“If Melbourne starts well, are in control of the game, have a solid lead at half-time, then I think in many respects, that kind of sets things up for what it may look like for Illawarra for the series.”

Stopping Chris Goulding is one of the daunting tasks Illawarra faces.

The lights-out shooter thrives moving without the ball, coming off screens for catch-and-shoot threes, and Melbourne’s favourite design play for him: the Spanish pick and roll where he sets a back screen before relocating out to the top of the key for an open three.

Goulding was terrific in the three matchups against Illawarra this season, averaging 21.7 points on 46.7 per cent shooting and 39.5 per cent from three-point land.

He played an instrumental role in the team’s second encounter, scoring 33 points and knocking home seven threes.

But the Hawks have been the architects of quelling superstars. Quelling the likes of four-time MVP Bryce Cotton with hard shows, double-teams, and traps, with defensive specialist Will Hickey doing a splendid job.

Illawarra produced relentless defensive schemes on New Zealand Breakers point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, restricting him to 19 points on only five of 17 shooting and two of nine from downtown in the play-in victory.

However, putting together a thorough game plan against Goulding is easier in theory but harder in practice, even at 35 years of age.

“He’s a lot more selective with his shots that he’s taking,” Heverin said.

“Sometimes in commentary, we can say gee Chris Goulding’s only had five attempts to half-time. He seems to be okay with that now. I think that the other thing when we’re talking about being harder for longer with Illawarra is you’ve got to be locked into Chris Goulding the entire time that he’s on the court.

“Don’t let yourself get into a situation where halfway through the third, you’re starting to think ‘okay, well, Chris Goulding hasn’t been a factor so far’ because there are many teams this season that have felt the wrath of Chris Goulding in the fourth quarter.”

Stopping Melbourne United’s big men Ariel Hukporti and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr is a monumental task that awaits Hawks centre Sam Froling.

The Next Generation Award winner came up trumps in his matchup against Breakers centre Mangok Mathiang, finishing with 21 points and nine rebounds.

But facing United’s gargantuan centres is a whole different proposition.

Hukporti was second in average blocks (1.5), while Lual-Acuil Jr finished fourth (1.4).

Lual-Acuil Jr’s prowess in shot-blocking all season saw him register a season-high seven blocks in a clinical win over crosstown rivals South East Melbourne Phoenix on December 14.

Froling’s game predicates around his forward left hook shot near the rim and pouncing upon teammates’ misses for second-chance opportunities.

For Froling to gain the edge, he’ll have to play “out of his skin” according to Heverin.

“I thought he was fabulous (Monday night) against New Zealand. I think he’s in the form across the season to take on the challenge. And he seems to have relished a few of these individual challenges across the season,” he said.

“But the hard thing for him here is that it’s not an individual challenge. It’s not Froling v Jo Lual-Acuil Jr or Froling v Hukporti. It’s essentially 2v1. Sam’s not a perimeter shooter. So he has to get his hands dirty and be willing and need to play on both ends of the floor.

“But I think he’s up for the challenge. Where the support needs to come from Lachie Olbrich, which is a big challenge for a youngster. And also Mason Peatling, who knows the Melbourne United system very well, won a championship with them, and knows the ins and outs of their schemes.”

During their respective times in the league, Olbrich and Peatling haven’t shot the three at higher than 35 per cent. But to stretch Hukporti and Acuil Jr away from the paint and onto the perimeter, this looms as Ilawarra’s best chance of success in mitigating their influence.

A key for Ilawarra is preventing Melbourne from setting up its ultra-discipline half-court defence.

Where the Hawks excelled in the three meetings was capitalising turnovers into points.

Illawarra forced 13 turnovers, leading to 21 points in the first encounter.

In the second matchup, 17 turnovers into 23 points, and in the third meeting, forcing 10 turnovers into 16 points.

Pushing pace has been a constant theme for the Hawks under Justin Tatum.

They produced their fast-break game off turnovers during stages in all three contests against Melbourne.

“So they’ve got to be willing to do that and be willing to make mistakes in the process,” Heverin said about Illawarra needing to run at every opportunity.

“I think you’re better off doing that than walking the ball up the floor and allowing Melbourne to set up defensively because if you do that, it’s a death by a thousand cuts.

“They’ll get you so many times on the defensive end with the way they structure up. So the Hawks have to be willing to take some chances, simple as that.

“When you’re willing to take some chances, you’ve got to cash in on them because the number one seed (Melbourne United), who are very good with the ball and don’t make a lot of errors, aren’t going to give you too many chances.”

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Underlying United’s talent-laden depth is their bench.

In the regular season, Melbourne ranked second for bench points (33.3), with Sixth Man of the Year Ian Clark, Flynn Cameron, Kyle Bowen, Tanner Krebs, and Ariel Hukporti leading a clinical unit.

On many occasions, United’s reliable bench was the difference-maker in games.

Examples of their bench scoring include combining for 31 points in a road win over the Sydney Kings on January 4, 46 points in a pulsating overtime win over the Perth Wildcats on December 23, and 47 points in a demolition job over the Phoenix on December 14.

Heverin says not enough “credit” has been given to coach Dean Vickerman and his staff for compiling a deep bench.

“They’ve spoken in the past they made some mistakes last season with the type of player and the type of personality that they bought in,” he said.

“Only fools make the same mistake twice, and Melbourne United have not made the same mistake.

“They’ve got better character people and better basketball type, Dean Vickerman type guys. Kyle Bowen and Flynn Cameron are exactly that, and even Ariel Hukporti.

“Yes, they’ve had a three-week break and they’ve had a real chance to freshen up. But it’s what they’ve done all year. They can go to anyone on the bench.

“So this is such a luxury for Dean Vickerman.”

In a series where the minuscule of errors will play an integral part in deciding the outcome, Heverin sees the series going to a third and deciding game, with Melbourne advancing to its fourth NBL championship series in seven seasons.

“They’re a quality team (Melbourne United),” Heverin said.

“I think Illawarra playing at home in game two, that’s going to be a factor for them, we saw it (Monday night) it was a factor for them as well.

“So I think Melbourne in three. But I think both teams win at home.”

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