Melbourne United has been swept out of the 2016 NBL finals by playoff specialists New Zealand Breakers.
After losing the series opener on their home floor on Thursday night, United faced a cut-throat game two at Vector Arena in Auckland on a short two-day turnaround and failed to turn the tables, going down 91-78 in a game full of momentum swings.
“It was a hotly contested game, you know, and I’m just really proud of my guys,” United coach Dean Demopoulos said in the post game. “This is our first time at this kind of rodeo together.”
United finished on top of the ladder after the regular season, while the Breakers only scraped into the finals in fourth in the last round, but it was never going to be an easy match-up for United with the Breakers boasting unmatched experience when it comes to the business end of a campaign and running into hot form at the right time of the season.
The Breakers are the defending champions of the competition and have won four of the past five NBL titles in one of the league’s great dynasties. They played like a team that is hungry for more.
“This group [the Breakers] here has been through it before and they’re an excellent basketball team, I’ll tell you,” Demopoulos said. “They deserve the word champion to be by their names. They earn it, they talk it and they walk it, give them credit.
“They’re better than us right now. We aspire to be like them. We’d like to hang up [banners] four out of five years and they’ve got an excellent chance to make it five out of six in my opinion.”
United was simply not consistent enough in their two semi-final clashes with the Breakers.
They had patches where the set the court alight with their offence, but it was largely confined to a quarter here and a quarter there.
Hakim Warrick was the ever-present for United, working hard in the paint at both ends.
But the star import was forced to shoulder much of the work load in the centre position, when he could have been better used in a secondary big man role.
The ineffectiveness of starting centre Majok Majok at the back end of the season forced Demopoulos into locking Warrick into heavy minutes at forward.
United was on the wrong end of lop-sided rebound counts too often this season and it came to haunt them in the finals.
It is an area the club will need to address going forward.
The bigs do not get any smaller in the finals as United found out against the Breakers.
United conceded over 90 points to the Breakers in each of the two semi final games with second chance points a key stat for the Breakers.
The play of guards Chris Goulding and Stephen Holt was a highlight of the season.
Goulding maintained the rage in the finals to be United’s primary scorer, but Holt ran hot and cold against Cedric Jackson and Corey Webster, the two-headed monster in the Breakers back court.
Daniel Kickert was a superb leader for United this season, but his impact in the finals was limited by an astute and veteran Breakers front line.
A season-ending injury to bench spark plug Igor Hadziomerovic hurt United more than it would have appeared at the time.
So much of the focus came on United’s starters and sixth man Warrick to produce because of the lack of depth on the bench.
Nate Tomlinson fought hard as a back-up to Holt, but, aside from the point guard, finding a player who could log a reliable 15 or so minutes besides Hadziomerovic and Warrick was a constant battle for Demopoulos.
Having missed the finals last season, United made enormous strides under Demopoulos this season.
They played a fast and entertaining brand of basketball, which translated into big home crowds at Hisense Arena.
The finals run will stand United in good stead going forward.
Perhaps you have to lose a finals series to win one.
A bit of tinkering with the roster and a strive-to-improve mentality and United should be there or thereabouts again this time next season.
“My team set a bar and a standard for this new franchise and the city embraced them, the fans embraced them, ownership, management embraced them,” Demopoulos said. “I didn’t know the amusement park was this good out of my country. It’s a hell of a ride these guys took me on and I’m very appreciative for the opportunity that ownership and management gave me to spend a lot of time with a group of guys like this.
“It’s one of the better, maybe the best, group of people I’ve ever been. They obviously made me better. We fed off each other and we’re going to try to come back stronger and better for it.”
Game 2 summary
New Zealand Breakers 91 (Abercrombie 23, Cedric Jackson 19, Wesley 16) d Melbourne United 78 (Goulding 23, Warrick 17, Kickert 16).