NBL title race wide open as Melbourne, Sydney face mid-season test

Melbourne United’s clash with Sydney Kings on Sunday was already primed to be a show-stopper but the mixed fortunes of other NBL contenders suddenly makes this game as big as any this season.

Three games ago, Perth Wildcats had an 11-2 record and appeared destined to finish top of the league and be the title favourites.

But Perth have dropped three games in a row, the most recent a 93-86 loss to fourth-placed Brisbane Bullets in Brisbane on Friday night. The two other losses were to Sydney and Melbourne.

So the winner of Sunday’s showdown in Sydney will enter Christmas as the NBL title favourite, especially if Andrew Bogut’s Kings win the day.

United’s Craig Moller (right) contests with Sydney’s Daniel Kickert last month.Credit:AAP

Melbourne won their two previous games against the Kings this season, both were at Melbourne Arena. Melbourne have had a stranglehold on the Kings in the past two years winning seven straight games against them.

Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman said the Kings were a changed team from earlier this season, especially at the defensive end.

"They have been really solid defensively and their numbers put them in the top-two in the league with the things they are doing," Vickerman said.

"I think they have created a rhythm with their subbing patterns where people generally know when they are coming in and out of the game and we have got to manipulate that one a little bit.

"When they do go with a secondary group and counter that either with our second group or with some of our best players – that's one of those chess match kind of match-ups."

Vickerman has changed up his line-ups throughout the season and could still make some changes to his substitution patterns this game with the likes of Craig Moller, Alex Pledger and Mitch McCarron capable of playing bigger roles.

The Kings are in the midst of one of their busiest times of the season and come home to Sydney after playing in Cairns on Thursday night. Sunday’s clash is Melbourne’s only game for the round.

"I think the guys are really excited for the opportunity we have got," Kings coach Andrew Gaze said after their 81-70 win in Cairns.

"They are an elite defensive team, some huge offensive weapons and, from a fan's perspective, some mouth-watering match-ups.

"Hopefully we can do good by the Sydney Kings and do good by the game as well and put on a show that is worthy of two pretty good teams right now."

While all eyes will be on Sunday's game, the Wildcats will face off with Illawarra Hawks in Wollongong on Sunday evening.

The Hawks have been inconsistent but they have the ability to upset sides, especially teams like Perth as they begin to give up rebounds and lose rhythm offensively.

While the top teams look clearly ahead of the pack, the Hawks, Adelaide 36ers and New Zealand Breakers are only a few games back from the four.

On Friday night, Brisbane’s mid-season signing, NBA import Lamar Patterson, helped make some big plays, while veteran big men Mika Vukona and Cameron Bairstow pulled in key offensive rebounds in the final term, earning extra possessions.

The Wildcats opted to sign an extra Australian this off-season and only have two imports. Their thinking was a third import could be signed as a replacement if someone had a season-ending injury.

But that injury hasn’t come. Instead Perth look a player, or at least a difference-making player, short when facing off with the likes of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

Perth coach Trevor Gleeson said in Melbourne last Monday he didn’t think his side needed a third import as they were not playing at their best.

But if they have a fourth-straight loss on Sunday, all bets will be off.

As Perth showed with the late-season signing of NBA import Bryce Cotton two seasons ago, making a late move can win you a title.

For now, Gleeson plans to shorten his player rotation to seven or eight players and put the onus on his stars to lift.

"We are just playing too many guys at the moment, I'm playing 10-11 guys. I need to find five guys who can play together," Gleeson said.

"Sometimes we have got two guys playing together, three guys playing something different."

It's likely either the Kings or Melbourne will go into Christmas as the face of the NBL but the title landscape could change quickly by the new year.

Melbourne United play Sydney Kings at Qudos Bank Arena on Sunday at 2.50pm.

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