Jo Lual-Acuil.
Jo Lual-Acuil is a key to the NBL title series against Tasmania, United coach Dean Vickerman says. Image by Daniel Pockett/AAP PHOTOS
  • basketball

Coach highlights key battle that can decide NBL title

Shayne Hope March 16, 2024

Melbourne United coach Dean Vickerman has backed Jo Lual-Acuil Jr and Ariel Hukporti to thrive against Tasmania JackJumpers duo Will Magnay and Marcus Lee in a front-court battle that could decide the NBL title.

Melbourne’s talented bigs struggled to contain Illawarra star Sam Froling during their final-four showdown, but played their part in steering the league’s top-seeded team through to the Championship Series.

They face an even greater test against Boomers Olympics prospect Magnay and American import Lee in the best-of-five games title decider, starting at John Cain Arena on Sunday.

“Sam is a different beast to those two,” Vickerman said. “Both those two are a little more reliant on the guard play and how they screen and how they move out of screen.

“I rate Ari and Jo as two very good pick-and-roll players that have the ability to guard pretty well as good as anyone in the league.

“How efficient they are in this series in that coverage is going to be important.

“But if we need to, we know those two can change their level and play in different coverage as well.”

Ariel Hukporti.
Ariel Hukporti has formed a lethal front-court duo with Jo Lual-Acuil this season.

Melbourne are aiming for their first title in three years and third under Vickerman, leaning on a roster jam-packed with experience.

Key trio Chris Goulding, Shea Ili and Lual-Acuil all featured in the 2021 title, NBL veteran Brad Newley is playing a key role behind the scenes and 2016 NBA champion Matthew Dellavedova is leading from the front.

The 33-year-old guard was crucial in Melbourne’s tough series win over Illawarra, setting the tone with his intensity, and could dictate the tempo against Tasmania.

He’ll be up against high-powered JackJumpers’ back-court imports Jordon Crawford and Milton Doyle.

“Delly has started that mission about how we’re going to attack different guys on their team,” Vickerman said.

“(Tasmania) are a really solid defensive team but everyone’s got some weaknesses that get magnified in a finals series.

“Delly’s got his thinking hat on about how he attacks that.”

Matthew Dellavedova.
Matthew Dellavedova has his ‘thinking hat’ on about ways to attack the JackJumpers.

Melbourne topped the regular-season ladder and will enjoy home-court advantage in the Championship Series.

But the JackJumpers boast a 2-1 record against United this season, including a win over their hosts at John Cain Arena, and are buoyed by the memory of beating their rivals in a semi-final series two years ago.

Tasmania assistant coach Mark Radford dismissed concerns about their travel schedule, after a tough road win in Perth on Wednesday night sealed their spot in the decider.

“Who cares at this time of year? We’re ready to go back to Melbourne and play in a very familiar place,” Radford said.

“We’ve won (at John Cain Arena), so that obviously gives you confidence.

“But part of it is that if you don’t bring it against (Melbourne) you’re going to get your butt handed to you.

“That’ll jolt you into gear and make sure that you’re ready when you’re heading there.”