THERE was always a sense that the Perth Redbacks of 2017 were building to something special. Of course, that didn’t mean they were guaranteed to get to the Grand Final stage but once they did, everything clicked for their best performance of the season and coach Nik Lackovic couldn’t be prouder.
From the moment that the Redbacks had announced the signing of Perth Wildcats and NBL legend Shawn Redhage for the 2017 season and that Lee Roberts would be returning to a core still featuring Joel Wagner, Michael Vigor, Ben Smith and impressive group of youngsters, they looked a genuine threat for the title.
The season certainly had its hiccups along the way with Roberts and Vigor missing a significant chunk of the start to the season as did Marshall Nelson and Tyler Viskovich before returning from college.
To help offset that, another NBL veteran Alex Loughton came in for a four-game stint to start the season and then the likes of teenager Kyle Bowen and Zac Gattorna helped keep the Redbacks afloat.
Still until they finally got the full group together for the last several weeks of the regular season, nothing was guaranteed and a top four finish was anything but a certainty.
In the end the combination of the frontcourt of Vigor, Roberts and Redhage once they all got together was imposing while Wagner, Smith and Nelson in the back court proved pivotal and come playoff time, the contributions from Bowen and Gattorna, among others, were invaluable.
The Redbacks ended up finishing the regular season in fourth place before a hell of a quarter-final series with the South West Slammers, which they ended up winning in three games.
They then knocked out the regular season champion Willetton Tigers in two games to set the stage for a crack at a Joondalup City Wolves team playing in a third successive Grand Final, and with the motivation to not lose two in-a-row.
But Grand Final night was the time for this Redbacks team to show its full potential and to put together its most emphatic performance of all of 2017.
The end result was a 103-70 victory as the Redbacks won their first SBL championship since 1997.
There were stars all over the floor with Roberts claiming the Grand Final MVP with 28 points and 17 rebounds while Redhage had 20 points, six boards and six assists, Nelson 17 points and four assists, Smith 14 points and four dimes, Vigor eight points and four rebounds, and captain Wagner six points and five assists.
Lackovic couldn’t have been prouder of his team’s performance to deliver such a phenomenal Grand Final performance and to see how much it meant to so many people following a 20-year wait.
“To play our best game on this stage is pretty special and that’s a testament to our players and our people, and who they are and what they stand for. We just have some exceptional leaders,” Lackovic told www.sbl.asn.au after the Grand Final.
“Shawn has meant so much to this team not so much purely from a statistical point of view, but the growth that he has passed on to our leaders and to see them be selfless through the course of the whole playoffs was incredible to watch.
“You just look at the faces, the people, the tears, the joy, the excitement and the hugs and you can see what it means to so many people. The player group has inspired a community at the Redbacks right now and our juniors, supporters, sponsors, members, life members, coaches and everyone at the club, this is so significant for us. I’m just so proud of that.”
Lackovic was there as a player for the Redbacks’ last championship in 1997 and now has undergone some playoff heartbreak in recent years as coach.
But to now be a championship-winning coach is something he is still shaking his head about achieving, but he gives all credit to his players for what they accomplished.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and reward for all the commitment and hard work that so many people have put in over the course of not only this season, but seasons previously,” he said.
“I have so much pride with how our guys prepared and we understood who our opponent was and how tough they were, which makes this even better.
“They are a ridiculously well coached, well drilled, talented one through five on the floor at any time team. But the boys stuck to a game plan, they believed and trusted each other, and got the reward.”
For Joel Wagner to now be a championship winning captain having played more than 300 games with the Redbacks since beginning his SBL career as a 15-year-old could very well be the greatest thing for Lackovic about the 2017 triumph.
“He earned this more than anyone. He is such a relentless club man who has worked so hard on his own game and on what’s best for the team,” Lackovic said.
“He has put in countless hours of work through his 306 games now and he has been my motivating force to make sure this team is as prepared as possible. He is a special person and a special player too.”
The performance of Roberts was simply remarkable, particularly in the first half of the Grand Final. To see someone with such athleticism, strength and desire to rebound, score and just to win showed exactly why Lackovic was so keen to get him back for a second season with the Redbacks.
“I just describe Lee as a warrior. Lee would do whatever you ask him to do every time on the floor and that’s what he has done for me and this team,” he said.
“He doesn’t demand the ball, he gets so excited about his teammates succeeding and the level of intensity and competitiveness on every single possession with the smarts that go along with it, and see him do that in the Grand Final is incredible.”
With all the stars the Redbacks possessed, one often overlooked was Smith. But his consistency over the past two years has been remarkable and again anytime the Redbacks needed a spark during 2017 and in the finals, he provided it.
He put dagger after dagger in during the second half of the Grand Final as well and Lackovic can’t speak more highly of him.
“He is just so poised and patient. There was no secret that we felt we had some advantages on the interior but he stayed so composed and waited for his opportunities, and was ready. That’s what Ben is,” he said.
“In terms of work rate and attentiveness, understanding what we are trying to achieve and doing the team thing, the players are all like that but when you’ve got someone like Benny who could be so demanding of the ball perimeter-wise, he just does his role for the team.”
As much as the experienced stars might earn much of the limelight, it can’t be ignored that the Redbacks continue to do a tremendous job bringing through young talent.
To see 16-year-old Bowen stand up in the Grand Final was remarkable and then Nelson, ahead of joining the Illawarra Hawks as a development player, only enhanced his reputation with 17 points with his new coach Rob Beveridge watching on.
“I love them both so much. They are both special kids and I’m just so proud of them. Nelly is ridiculous,” Lackovic said.
“For KB who is 16 years of age and to come out on this stage and do what he did in the Grand Final is just beyond words. Then for Marshall to stay composed like he did and finish the game in that way after having trouble says the world about him. This is only the beginning for him and both of them.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)