05/03/2024

When Melbourne United recruited Ian Clark, they wanted a boost on-court, but no one could have expected the impact that he would have.

When Ian Clark was asked about his three-point shooting post-match following a thrilling open-air victory against the Perth Wildcats, he gave a humble response.

“I just try to hunt good ones honestly,” Clark said.

It’s that simple mindset that has seen Clark become a crucial part of a thriving Melbourne United side so far this season.

After spending time with the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, New Orlean Pelicans, and the championship-winning Golden State Warriors team in 2017, the 32-year-old brings a wealth of experience to the NBL after signing with United in August.

He has always been renowned as a brilliant three-point shooter composed with the ball in hand and extremely efficient when on the floor.

The former NBA player made his way to the NBL after joining the Sydney Kings mid-season in 2022. Despite having not played a professional game in over 10 months before taking the court for the Kings, Clark helped them to the Championship, averaging 13.9 points in just over 24 minutes per game.

He then spent a season at the Adelaide 36ers before signing with United.

Despite his lofty achievements that have come with playing at the top level previously, Clark may be playing the best basketball of his career. This season, he is averaging 15 points in 25 minutes per game.

Impressive numbers, right?

What is even more spectacular is his three-point shooting percentage. He is shooting the three-ball at an astounding 56 per cent this season and 45 per cent throughout his NBL career.

The only downside of his time in Melbourne has been injuries that have plagued him, playing just 11 of 17 games so far.

He proved again on Saturday night why he’s one of United’s most important players and arguably the best perimeter shooter in the NBL.

With United’s backs against the wall against a rampaging Bryce Cotton-led side, Clark produced some breathtaking plays, knocking down big shots with what looked like relative ease.

He finished the game with 25 points off the bench in 31 minutes. He recorded a super-efficient 5/7 shooting from the perimeter and 9/13 overall from the field to help his team win in one of the best games the NBL has ever hosted.

Coach Dean Vickerman paid homage to the 330 NBA game veteran post-match.

“IC [Ian Clark] made some big plays. We know what [he’s] capable of doing as a closer, and he showed that tonight,” he said.

Vickerman also recounted the crucial decision to take the wounded Matthew Dellavedova out of the game in the third quarter and to put Clark on to cover Bryce Cotton and be an offensive threat.

A move that proved decisive in erasing an eight-point, three-quarter time deficit.

“We thought once we played him [Dellavedova] at the start of the third, it was just like ‘oh he’s just not right’. When Delly was in through that little period, [I said] I think IC’s just got more pop in his legs right now to guard Bryce,” he said.

Clark credited his team’s comeback and fight to come away with the win. He said that multiple costly turnovers from him were a driving factor in lifting to get his team over the line.

“It’s a testament to us coming out in the second half and being more of who we wanted to be. Just guys gritting it out, being able to pull for one another,” Clark said.

“We talked about it all week of not letting your teammate down, even if you’re tired, you could get a sub or just grind it out. I think that’s what we did in that fourth quarter and overtime.

“It was tough, you know the ball slipping out of my hands, me falling over, things like that turning the ball over, but the guys did a great job of coming back to the huddle and just saying next play. It’s 0-0 again [in OT], so just being able to keep my head in those positions.

“I’m hard on myself a lot, so credit to the guys on the bench and CG [Chris Goulding] coming over to me and saying ‘It’s over now let’s keep going’.

“That helped me a lot,”

Throughout the night, three-time NBL MVP Bryce Cotton proved a handful for the hosts despite having league-leading defenders Matthew Dellavedova and Shea Ili paying close attention to him.

“I’ve known Bryce for a long time and a lot of games that I’ve played over here have been battles against him,” he said.

“We know what he’s done, his history here. Playing in Perth and the attention that he draws with his team but it’s always fun playing against him,” Clark said.

“It’s tough because with his shot-making you think you’re there and obviously you don’t want to foul him, but he makes some tough ones. He’s one of the tougher guys to guard in this league and it’s a pleasure to compete against him.

“I credit Shea [Shea Ili} a lot, I talk to him throughout the game all the time and ask him if he’s tired, I know he’s gassed sometimes but he’s so relentless in what he does against a guy like Bryce and everybody.”

In a game of constant momentum swings especially in the last quarter, when Cotton knocked down yet another three with 52.4 seconds on the clock, it looked like the Wildcats had done enough.

The lead was four points but with 19 seconds left and Cotton’s hand in the face of Chris Goulding, he managed to get a shot up from beyond the arc and knock down one of the most important buckets on his career, which reduced the margin to just a solitary point.

United then forced a turnover at the other end, with the ball in the hands of none other than Goulding to take the last shot. The wildcats guarded the perimeter closely before the United champion drove to the basket, throwing it off the glass and missing with just three seconds to go.

The ball then fell into the hands of centre Jo Lual-Acuil Jnr who forced up a shot before being fouled. This left 2.5 seconds on the clock, with two successful free throws needed to take it to overtime.

You could sense the tension amongst a packed out and raucous crowd just moments earlier. The nervous energy was pulpable all throughout Lual-Acuil’s body. His first attempt hit the back of the rim, before miraculously rattling around the basket and dropping in.

It was closely reminiscent to Khawi Leonard’s buzzer beater for Toronto in Game 7 of the 2019 playoffs to sink the Philadelphia 76ers. The second attempt went in much more swiftly to level scores. The wildcats took a timeout advancing the ball past half court, with Cotton put up a shot from three for it to fall short. We were going to overtime.

Ian Clark then took control with the help of Luke Travers and Lual-Acuil, hitting three triples in OT to guide United to a 109-103 win in a rollercoaster affair.

Vickerman was asked about that free throw of JLA’s, describing the moment as “a little scary”.

“Wow”, Vickerman said. “He changed his three-throw routine bit recently, he wanted to get better so I had good confidence that he was going to go knock those two in but once it bounced up it was a little bit scary and even the fadeaway jumper that he hit with one second on the shot [clock],” he said.

“There was so many big plays in this game so yeah packed-out house for us, I heard the fireworks were unreal. We talk about this being an iconic game in Melbourne right now and a kind of must go to game. It was a privilege for us to play in it.”

Despite the tension of the contest, Clark was excited to play in another open-air fixture and it was a game where he clearly thrived on the pressure of the occasion.

“I’ve played in one other open-air game in Perth when I was with Adelaide but it’s a fun environment, obviously being a packed-out crowd as well and the fans showing up. It’s one of those things where it’s hard not to get up for,” he said.

“It lived up to it, I’m glad we got the win especially going into this break but it was definitely one of the bigger games that I’ve played in.”

The NBA champion also spoke humbly about what makes his three-point shot so effective, a shot that sees him make over half of his attempts.

“I just try to hunt good ones honestly, there’s not really much more to that. CG’s a tough shot maker and he draws that attention. We got guys like Jo that can get it on the block and go one on one,” he said.

“It makes my job easier and a lot of them are wide open, sometimes I get to where the shot clock’s late or something like that but for the most part I try to be as efficient as possible and making the open ones.”    

In finishing Vickerman said although the team sits 14-3 on win/loss and four games clear on top of the ladder, it’s important that the team are still learning things from every outing.

“It was talked about just the decision making at half-time, we needed more people to kind of step up, I thought we were kind of looking for IC and Chris a little bit more and other people started to impose themselves.”

“It’s an important learning for us, we want to make sure we hunt good threes for these guys but making sure everyone else is still involved.”

Credit: DowntoBuck Youtube

Vickerman and Clark both paid further respect to Cotton, who, in many respects, almost single-handily ensured a second consecutive away victory against United. He finished with 36 points and played every second of the game.

“It’s wild that he plays 45 [minutes] for the way he plays and the speed that he plays at, the defence that we had on him. We kind of look at it and say we probably did a pretty good job on him playing 45 minutes and have him only have 20 shots, but we were a beat late on a couple of them and he rose up and knocked them in,” he said.

“It’s a hell of an effort from Bryce to keep doing what he did all night.

He forces you to be so much better defensively, and we talked about even just running down the floor and being able to see him all the time and never have your back turned to him. There’s so many little detailed things.”

Melbourne United now have a week’s break before taking on the Cairns Taipans on New Year’s Eve. They will be on the road until the start of February, with the use of John Cain Arena being taken up by the Australian Open.

The Perth Wildcats will need to bounce back fast with two games in the next week before entering the new year.

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