PERTH Redbacks coach Nik Lackovic was never concerned even when suffering some losses and his faith has been justified with the way his front court of Michael Vigor, Lee Roberts and Shawn Redhage is shaping up heading into the SBL Finals.
There was plenty of excitement surrounding the Redbacks entering the 2017 SBL season following the signing of Perth Wildcats legend Shawn Redhage fresh off his retirement and a fourth NBL championship.
Then there was the stint of Alex Loughton early on while they waited for the arrival of Roberts and Vigor. Marshall Nelson is another who has arrived since and had a significant impact in the back court alongside 300-game captain Joel Wagner and 250-gamer Ben Smith.
But with Redhage absent for a period and Vigor also out, Perth’s season hit a speed bump with losses to the Perry Lakes Hawks, Cockburn Cougars, Joondalup City Wolves and Stirling Senators.
That meant they were closer to clinging to stay in the eight than the top four. But Redhage and Vigor returned and a full strength Redbacks responded beating the Willetton Tigers and Geraldton Buccaneers on back to back nights.
They enter the playoffs on a four-game winning run from fourth position leading into a tantalising quarter-final match up with the South West Slammers.
There’s no question that a full strength Redbacks are as much a chance of going all the way in 2017 as any other team even though the same can be said for their quarter-final opponent.
While the back court of Wagner, Nelson and Smith is strong, that is the Slammers strength too with Tre Nichols, Michael Lay, Teny Puot and even Brian Voelkel doing a lot of the ball carrying.
But the front court power of the Redbacks is likely the best in the SBL with the force of Redhage, Roberts and Vigor who have size, experience, strength and moves inside. But they can also step outside and shoot and make plays for their teammates.
The trio of Redhage, Vigor and Roberts have the ability to take Perth far this year and Lackovic has no doubt they have had enough time together to click.
“We do have enough time to get the best out of the three of them and firstly because of who they are. The one thing I love about this group is their character and what they stand for, and they are so coachable,” Lackovic said.
“They’re all prepared to sacrifice for each other and it took us a little bit of time to get the balance, timing and floor spacing right with having the three bigs because we played very small and young to start the season. Now we are starting to see the rewards for that and the IQ is as good as I’ve seen.
“We’ve got good depth and support through our bench coming through too. They understand where their strengths lie but they also understand there are no off nights from here on in.”
The Redbacks will host Game 1 against the Slammers on Saturday night at Belmont Oasis and even though Lackovic would have liked to finish higher than fourth if he had his full team available longer in 2017, getting home court in the first round is important.
And it’s not so much for the advantage it provides in the game, but for the reward it gives everyone at the Redbacks who have worked so hard to put the team in this position.
“That home court is really important and I would have liked us to be able to finish higher than fourth, but there were a couple of games we dropped that I feel we shouldn’t have for whatever reason,” he said.
“Finishing fourth is still important for us as a club because we don’t own our own stadium and don’t have a big budget and can’t do some of the other things other clubs can do. So to get an extra game at home is great for us and for the team. We are just really excited about what’s ahead.
“This is a special group of guys who are team-first players and we have a great blend of youth and experience.”
Going back a month to when the Redbacks suffered a four-game losing run on the back of a lack of key personnel more than anything, Lackovic didn’t let himself get concerned because he knew the troops would be returning.
Along the way earlier in the season too the Redbacks suffered some nail-biting losses, so while the 16-10 record was impressive it wouldn’t have taken much more than a bit of luck late in a few games for them to right at the top.
That all meant that Lackovic’s faith in group always remained strong and now with the form they’ve shown over the last month heading into the playoffs, he likes the way they are placed.
“I wouldn’t say I was concerned, there were periods during that time when we played well and just didn’t close out possessions or a quarter. We did lose two games on the buzzer but we are, and were, where we deserve to be for a number of reasons,” he said.
“We knew we were going to have some guys who were going to be away for periods but those were challenging especially without Shawn and Mike. But I love to see how the group has now responded and how a little bit of adversity really shows the character of this group.
“We have some tremendous leaders with our captain Joel Wagner, Shawn is as good as you will get ever and Lee Roberts is an exceptional person who rises to any challenge and he’s prepared to play any role this team needs. Then you put in a guy like Mike Vigor who slots in and is a selfless player who is prepared to put the team forward.
“This group is prepared to sacrifice, they are disciplined and they’ve got a real tightness and togetherness about them. We know it’s going to be a tough challenge because there are so many quality teams who prepare well, but these last four games have put us in a good position to get ready for the upcoming playoffs.”
It was make a break time three weeks ago when the Redbacks were on that four-game losing slide and faced the Tigers and Buccs in successive nights.
While he still was confident in his group, once Lackovic saw them come together so impressively to win both those games that’s when his belief in what the Redbacks could achieve in 2017 went to a whole other level.
“I think you earn that belief through playing good teams and Willetton are an exceptional team, and so are Geraldton,” Lackovic said.
“Both are teams with great talent and I’ll be honest with you, we had our worst week of preparation leading into those two games because we had guys away during the week and who had come back on the day of the game on Friday in the case of Shawn.
“Lee, Mike and Joel were away during the week as well but we covered that in the pre-game before Willetton talking about how this game wasn’t going to be about talent, it was going to be about who would be more determined and hungrier.
“For us it was about establishing where we want to be against a good team on the road, which is what playoff basketball is about learning to win in those environments and situations. They are very good teams and were important wins for us.”
Photo by Sports Imagery Australia