Not long ago, Melbourne United's season was hanging on by a thread after losing to the Illawarra Hawks 93-79 on December 5. If the miserable record (5-10) for a team so bound to success had enough incentive to completely turn their season around, then its definitely paid off. Since then, United have won 9 of their last 11 to catapult into the logjam playoff picture.
However, its been the side's last five successive wins - all on the road - which is swinging the pendulum on sides from third to fifth: New Zealand Breakers, Perth Wildcats, and the Tasmania JackJumpers. All three will be nervously sweating about the possibility of facing United in the play-in tournament.
Whilst expectations saw them beat the Brisbane Bullets twice, road wins against the JackJumpers, Breakers, and recently the Adelaide 36ers are more significant, considering the tidal wave atmosphere all three crowds generate.
For many years now, United possess the luxury of having the best shooter in the game; Chris Goulding, come to the fore in crunch time. Recently it has been no different. During the side's five-game winning streak, Goulding is averaging 21.2 points on 43.6% shooting and 37% from deep.
His ability to catch fire is a problematic conundrum all sides face when scouting their strategy on how to negate him. None more so in the victory over the 36ers, scoring 10 quick points to start the game en route to a 28-point performance.
As Goulding continues to produce, the team's imports Rajon Tucker and Xavier Rathan-Mayes have been catalysts for why United are making noise at the right time. Tucker who leads the team in scoring (17.7 PPG) on 48% shooting in the last two games has been brilliant.
After carving up the Brisbane Bullets' swiss-cheese defence on his way to a 30-point outing, he again had a major input over Adelaide. Tucker hit many crucial shots especially his tough hanging layup and driving layup in the game's final two minutes to keep the 36ers at bay. His incredible athleticism to hare from one end to the other allows United to start their transition game, an area Coach Dean Vickerman consistently preaches.
Although Tucker didn't have to contribute a whole lot against the JackJumpers and the Breakers, it shows the depth United have.
There are many indicators as to why the 2018 and 2021 Champions have begun clicking. It would take numerous analytical searching to come up with a full list of theories. However like Tucker's production, Xavier Rathan-Mayes is thriving in his new role as sixth man.
The talented guard is playing his best basketball and at the right time. In his last five outings, he is averaging 15.6 points on 49.1% from the field, a sizzling 47.8% from downtown, to go with 4 assists. Especially the last two games and the game against the 36ers where he got hot in the second half, mainly in the third going for 14 points including four triples.
As the leader of the second unit, his production is going to be vital. During the NBL20 season, Coach Vickerman moved star guard Melo Trimble to the sixth-man role, and there is a similar feel to this.
Whilst United have been enjoying the on-court exploits of Tucker and Nathan-Mayes, another signing that has been a difference-maker on the defensive end is Marcus Lee. Rangy, athletic, and standing at 211cm the American is the main reason for United's turnaround defensively.
For over the first month of the campaign, the side initially thought mobile forward Jordan Caroline would have an impact, but it didn't have the results. Since waiving Caroline and signing Lee on November 16, he is showing why United were seeking a rim protector to go alongside Isaac Humphries considering how small the side is in the big man department. The side felt it when Ariel Hukproti went down with an Achilles injury during pre-season.
Lee's level of activity has gone tenfold since Humphries went down with a knee injury in the early stages against the JackJumpers. The 6'11 contributions made the difference finishing with a season-high 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks. His insertion into the starting five has seen him average 10 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in the last four games. Teams are doing what they can do to drive inside the paint, but having the supreme athleticism of Lee is making the task harder.
The only question will be is when Humphries returns, will Lee remain the starting centre or move back onto the bench?
Only Coach Vickerman has the answer.
Although the offence won't run through him with Goulding, Tucker, and Rathan-Mayes getting the majority of plays, his rim-rolling will be a key piece for the side. Already, United has executed a number of pick-and-roll actions with him teaming up with Rathan-Mayes and Tucker. The major arsenal which the side executes extremely well with Lee is the alley-oop.
On many occassions, the side has designed a play incorporating Lee as the screen setter then watching him fly to the rim. Even drives to the basket from either Rathan-Mayes or Tucker lead to an alley-oop as opposing defences have to worry about denying either guard an easy lay-up.
During the side's wobbly first two months at the season's beginnings, where the offence got stagnant and heavy isolation plays, the experienced playing group are getting the blend of ball movement, executing perfectly. Yes, there will be one-on-one plays, but that's how skilled today's players are at taking difficult jumpers and contested threes. The latter is where United like to generate shots from, averaging 29.7 triples a game at 36.1%.
Over the course of Coach Vickerman's tenure, the side has been right at the top defensively allowing under 90 points in four of five seasons (excluding this current NBL23 season). In the recent surge, the team is locking in and in doing so minimising opposition effectiveness, conceding only 82.8 points in the last five outings. On top, restricting sides to only 43.3% shooting and 32.5% from deep.
You can look at the Sydney Kings' loss on Christmas Day as the catalyst for the team's defensive reversal in the right trajectory.
As the regular season reaches its thrilling conclusion with two rounds remaining, don't discount United from the equation. Their best defender Shea Illi, unfortunately, endured another concussion, while David Barlow (concussion), and Issac Humphries (knee) are still out. However, it has one of the deepest rosters in the League, more than enough to counteract the trio's absences.
Although its cross-town rivals South East Melbourne Phoenix leapfrogged them with victories over the Perth Wildcats and Cairns Taipans to re-claim sixth position, United are right in the hunt. But first things first, they have to beat New Zealand and Adelaide.