Fighting for a playoff spot, the New Zealand Breakers threatened to cause a boilover in Melbourne yesterday afternoon against the ladder leaders.
The NBL23 runners up jumped out of the blocks, holding a five-point lead late in the first quarter, however it was a former Breaker who helped turn the tide.
Guard Shea Ili might have had 12 points and five assists for the match, but it was his defensive capabilities that proved pivotal. So much so, Melbourne United big man Jo Lual-Acuil Jr has endorsed him for the league’s most prestigious defensive prize.
“We have this guy named Shea Ili; he should be Defensive Player of the Year. I think it’s pretty criminal he hasn’t won one yet,” he said on the catalyst for Melbourne United’s fightback.
“When Shili is super locked in – which he’s always locked in – it just gives us pace and easy transition points.”
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In the opening three quarters of yesterday’s match, Ili negated opposing guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. One of the in-form players in recent weeks, Jackson-Cartwright was coming off a 31-point game against the Illawarra Hawks on Friday night. However, the 2022 Sixth Man of the Year limited the American to 10 points in the opening 30 minutes.
His tag on the University of Arizona alum, combined with United’s unrelenting attack in closing out quarters saw them cruise to a 94-81 win. Outscoring New Zealand by 21 in the final two minutes of the first three quarters, Melbourne were back at their best.
“We saw the type of basketball that we want to play in the playoffs for three quarters,” Melbourne United head coach, Dean Vickerman, said.
“That second quarter especially when we look back at it, it’s the kind of basketball that we really want to play.”
Despite being two games and percentage clear of the Perth Wildcats, United have still got one more challenge to overcome – defeating the Cairns Taipans. Winless in their two encounters this season, Cairns are the only side they are yet to defeat in NBL24. Vickerman ensured his side won’t be taking the foot off the accelerator just yet.
“No one on our team likes going through a season and not beating a team, so there’ll be a competitive edge with the way that we play them,” he said.
If Melbourne United lose on Friday night, it will be the first time since NBL15 that the Victorian side have not beaten the Cairns Taipans in a season.