13/04/2024

It all comes down to this as Melbourne United and the Tasmania JackJumpers fight for the crown of NBL24 champions. (Image: @MelbUnited;@JackJumpers/X)

If you want high-octane and compelling basketball, you’ve got it.

These NBL playoffs have been enthralling, with both semifinals going to a third and deciding game.

However, two Grand Finalists remain, Melbourne United and the Tasmania JackJumpers.

United survived an almighty scare from the Illawarra Hawks, having to rally from a 16-point deficit in game one with seven minutes remaining to prevail in overtime.

After losing game one and Marcus Lee for game two for his hard foul on Jordan Usher, the JackJumpers won at home before silencing the Red Army on Wednesday night.

It’s a fitting conclusion that Melbourne and Tasmania will fight it out for the championship.

Melbourne is vying for its fourth championship in seven seasons.

While Tasmania is in its second Grand Final series in three seasons and will seek to deliver the silverware back to the Apple Isle.

It isn’t the teams’ maiden acquaintance in the playoffs.

In the NBL22 semifinals series, the JackJumpers prevailed, winning on United’s home floor in the decider behind an electrifying 30-point performance from import guard Josh Adams.

United superstar Chris Goulding didn’t play that day after straining his calf in game two.

No team scored 80 or more points in a physical postseason grind.

With game one starting on Sunday, United will have home-court advantage, having finished top of the table in the regular season. But the JackJumpers won’t fear the boisterous John Cain Arena crowd, having won there on October 8 behind Milton Doyle’s fourth-quarter exhibition.

An Achilles heel Melbourne faces is its woes at the charity stripe. During the regular season, United finished last for free throw percentage (69.8 per cent). In these playoffs, this number has dipped to 64.6 per cent.

Chris Goulding, an excellent foul-shooter, unusually split a pair of free throws late in game two against Illawarra, allowing Illawarra to force overtime on Will Hickey’s buzzer-beater put-in.

United’s struggles from the line were prevalent in the NBL22 semifinal series, shooting only 57.8 per cent, including 11 of 21 (52.4 per cent) in the decider.

The voice of Australian Basketball, John Casey, believes this department is “crucial” for Melbourne, especially in the final 10 minutes.

“The important the games become, and now we’re into the championship series decider best of five. Teams making their free throws have a massive advantage,” Casey told The Inner Sanctum.

“We’ve seen free throw misses having a huge significance on the impact of the playoffs so far. Even though those numbers suggest that they’re struggling from the free throw line, like Melbourne.

“It’s who takes those free throws because Chris Goulding is a good free throw shooter. Matthew Dellavedova is a good free-throw shooter. And I think that the overall numbers are somewhat weighed down by poor free-throw shooters.

“So it’s a matter of who you foul. But certainly, it is a weakness and an area for Tasmania to exploit.”

In the cauldron of pressure, rebounding has more importance than ever.

Melbourne dominated the rebounding count against Tasmania on October 27, 45-29.

But the JackJumpers eviscerated United by plus 20 (55-35) on January 19, including 20 offensive rebounds, although United’s Jo Lual-Acuil Jr didn’t feature.

Casey doesn’t read into the stark differentiating rebounding counts.

Putting the clamps on silent assassin Milton Doyle is a focus Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman will have with his assistants Jacob Chance, Rhys Carter, and David Barlow.

The stoic Doyle demonstrated all the poise as to why he is one of the league’s clutch operators.

He cut the Wildcats defensive schemes apart with mid-range jumpers, selfless facilitating, and that devastating two-man game with either Will Magnay or Marcus Lee in pick and rolls.

Melbourne, the league’s best defensive team, has numerous options to mitigate Doyle’s influence with Defensive Player of the Year Shea Ili and the rugged Matthew Dellavedova.

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Casey sees United deploying hard shows, hedges, traps and double-teams to take the ball out of Doyle’s hands.

“They’re going to have to try different schemes at Tassie because the JackJumpers are so well drilled,” Casey said.

“Scott Roth’s got his team humming at the moment. They all know where to be at the right time. They all know they have to make the extra pass. They play well within their system. They’re super well-coached.

“But again, so are Melbourne United. So it’s going to be a tactical battle between Scott Roth and Dean Vickerman, who are two of the best in the business.

“But the thing with Tasmania is that they are proactive. They like to worry about themselves and play their style of game.”

Part of Melbourne’s increased versatility is the continual rise of Luke Travers.

After three seasons with the Perth Wildcats, Travers sought a new beginning to take him out of his comfort zone and help develop himself as a basketballer.

Under coach Vickerman’s guidance, the 22-year-old is a predominant cog within Melbourne’s system.

He’s super adaptable as a defender guarding all five positions.

On the offensive end, his mantle as a point forward along with his rebounding and pushing pace in transition orchestrates Melbourne’s fast-break opportunities.

He was integral against Illawarra, averaging 16.7 points and 8.7 rebounds in 31.7 minutes.

Casey is affirmative that Travers will “influence” the championship series.

“He goes about his business in a quiet way. He does it at both ends of the floor. He’s dangerous in terms of his shooting. He can get hot that (although) it hasn’t been his strength, but it’s certainly getting better,” Casey said.

“He’s able to find rebounds where other players can’t. There’s only a handful of players in the competition who are able to come up with the sort of rebounds they don’t have any right to be getting and Luke Travers is one of those players he’s hard to match up on.

“I think he’s going to be an edge for Melbourne United. They’re (Tasmania JackJumpers) going to find it difficult to try and contain Luke Travers.”

In playoff basketball, the referees usually allow the play to eventuate.

But this hasn’t been the case in these playoffs, with 131 fouls in the Wildcats-JackJumpers series and 126 in the United-Hawks series.

Two years ago, there were 116 fouls in Melbourne and Tasmania’s NBL22 playoff series.

“I would like to see the referees put the whistle away a little bit. But then they get criticised for not calling a foul. So people criticise referees no matter what they do,” Casey said about allowing physical play without impeding it.

“So, I think it’s the team that can adjust and the team that can keep their poise, and that was a word Scott Roth used a lot during his timeouts in both game one and game three of the series win against the Perth Wildcats.”

In the last 16 championship series since 2008, only four have gone to a deciding fifth game.

Two of these have come in the last six seasons, with Melbourne featuring in 2018 when it defeated the Adelaide 36ers.

With hustle plays, an unsung hero, players fighting for loose balls, clutch shot making, and rebounding to decide the series, Casey forecasts the JackJumpers to deliver a maiden title.

“It’s a really hard series to decide. I don’t think there’s a standout team in terms of one should be a hot favourite,” Casey said.

“We’ve seen how important home-court advantage is during the playoffs. So maybe Melbourne go one up to start the series. And then it’s up to Tasmania to find a way to get the advantage past them.

“But right now, I’m just leaning toward the Tasmania JackJumpers because I’ve seen two of their last three games from courtside. I’ve just been super impressed with what they’ve done, and they’re going to be hard to beat.”

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