The Perth Wildcats are coming off one of their best wins in recent memory with a hard-fought, come from behind victory over the Illawarra Hawks. Next up is the daunting challenge of facing a dominant Melbourne United side who have trampled on everyone they’ve played so far.
At this, very early stage of the season, United look like one of the greatest NBL teams ever assembled. That assessment might be a little premature, considering their soft schedule to start the season (played two matches against Townsville and haven’t played an away game yet), but the way they’ve won those games has been super impressive.
Here’s a look at their starting five, plus their super sixth man, to give us an idea of what the Perth Wildcats are up against on Thursday night.
Center – Majok Majok
This man is so athletically gifted his parents named him twice. Majok uses that athleticism to pull in every rebound that comes his way – having the arm length of stretch-Armstrong also helps. He’s limited in what he can do offensively, but Majok’s one of the main reasons this Melbourne team is currently ranked no.1 in defensive rating.
Power Forward – Daniel Kickert
Kickert might be the best 3-point shooter in the league – he shot over 50% from behind the arc last season and is currently hitting them at 47% this season. Defending Kickert, in a pick n pop situation, is one of the toughest assignments on an NBL court.
Small Forward – Todd Blanchfield
Struggles to create his own shot, but makes up for that by being one of the best 3-pointer shooters in the league. Add in his great rebounding and defense and you have one of the most valuable players in the competition.
Shooting Guard – Chris Goulding
Unlike Blanchfield, Goulding has no problems creating for himself; he can pull-up off the dribble or put it on the floor and attack the rim. He’s a streaky shooter but when Chris Goulding is feeling it, he’s almost unstoppable.
Point Guard – Stephen Holt
Holt isn’t the prototypical distributing point guard, but he does a great job of running the pick n roll. He’s also a massive threat for downtown – nailing them at over 53% this season. It will be a huge surprise if Stephen Holt isn’t playing in the NBA next year.
6th man – Hakim Warrick
When you have an ex-NBA player coming off the bench, you know the team is good. Warrick’s being used primarily at the center spot, splitting time with Majok. He isn’t the best shooter in the league, but he uses his athleticism to get easy points around the rim.
United’s four-out offense
Melbourne United’s offense looks unguardable at times. They’re similar in style to the Illawarra Hawks – with one post player surrounded by four shooters out behind the arc. They score a lot of their points out of the pick n roll/pop, with Stephen Holt and Chris Goulding as the ball handlers and Daniel Kickert as the screener.
When Kickert is setting the pick, it’s almost impossible to defend; once the ball carrier (Holt or Goulding) gets around the screen, the defenders have to either switch opponents or try trap/double-team the ball carrier. Switching results in Goulding/Holt going one-on-one against a bigger/slower defender, while the double-team leaves Kickert wide open at the 3-point line. Both options aren’t very desirable.
In this clip, the defenders tried to double Goulding – although he didn’t use him, Kickert was left wide open at the 3-point line. Goulding then kills a scrambling Tyson Demos off the dribble.
There’s no easy way to stop them. The Cairns Taipans, last Sunday, defended Melbourne’s pick n roll/pops almost to perfection and United still dropped 89 points on them.
The Taipans decided to switch on every pick n pop featuring Daniel Kickert and for the most part it worked. Cairns had success with the strategy largely because their power forwards (Mark Worthington and Cameron Traghard) were quick enough to keep up with Holt and Goulding after the switch.
The Wildcats will probably stick Matty Knight on Kickert. He isn’t as quick as Worthington or Traghard, but he’s a great defensive big man. Knight might not be fast enough to keep up with Holt and Goulding but it’s worth trialing to find out.
If it doesn’t work, Perth can bring in Jesse Wagstaff – who’s quick enough to defend the switch – and drop Jawai or Knight to the bench.
The Wildcats need to do a better job of contesting 3-point shots. Too often a Perth perimeter defender will leave his man to try double-team or trap the ball handler.
Greg Hire leaves his man to double-team Brian Conklin. This type of aggressive help defense is effective against a lot of teams but very dangerous versus super 3-point shooting sides. If the ‘Cats give Blanchfield, Goulding or Kickert this much space, chances are they’ll get burnt.
Keys to the game
Stopping Daniel Kickert getting open looks is crucial. Against the Hawks, Perth did a poor job of defending Oscar Forman, who was given way too much room behind the arc – he nailed four 3-pointers in only six attempts. The Wildcats will need to do a better job on Kickert.
While Kickert is a great offensive weapon, he’s a poor defensive rebounder for his size – United give up the most offensive rebounds in the league. With Knight and Nate Jawai on the floor, the Wildcats should be able to dominate the offensive boards and make United pay with second chance points.
Offensively, the Wildcats need to keep feeding it into the post. United have struggled to defend big-men in the paint; Nate Jawai has a massive strength advantage over Majok Majok and Daniel Kickert. United might be forced to double-team Jawai, which will leave players open at the 3-point line – the ‘Cats need to hit those open looks.
Can the Wildcats win?
The Perth Wildcats need Damian Martin and Casey Prather back in the lineup. They’re both super perimeter defenders and much needed against a powerful Melbourne United backcourt.
Nate Jawai has to stay out of foul trouble and play more than 20 minutes. Punishing United in the post and keeping up with their quicker players on the defensive end will be the key for Jawai and Knight.
If the Perth Wildcats can limit United’s open 3-point attempts and hit their own shots from downtown, they’re a good chance to win. Of course, doing those two things won’t be easy.
Beating this Melbourne United side, in Melbourne, is a tough ask but not impossible.
If it bleeds, it can be killed.