THE Perth Redbacks took part in four of the first 11 Men’s SBL Grand Finals but none since until Saturday night and things appear to be coming together nicely with coach Nik Lackovic now having his full squad ready and able to play for the first time in 2017.
The Redbacks won Men’s SBL championships in 1989, 1990 and 1997 while also making a Grand Final in 1999 but it has been slim pickings since with 18 years between an appearance in the big dance and 20 years since the last title.
Lackovic was there as a player in the Grand Finals of 1997 and 1999 but now having seen the pain of being out of the title hunt since then, and having seen the amount of hard work put in to make the Redbacks a championship contender again, he couldn’t be proud of this playing group.
The Redbacks haven’t been too far from the mark during Lackovic’s time as a coach and then 2017 always promised to have a special feeling about it with the potential of the group he could have.
But getting all those players available at the one time has proved to be a great challenge.
The Redbacks started the season with Alex Loughton for four games before he moved on as planned with Shawn Redhage becoming a dominant force awaiting the arrival of Lee Roberts, Michael Vigor, Marshall Nelson and Tyler Viskovich.
Teenager Kyle Bowen came up huge in their absence and then by the time he had headed for the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence, those four had arrived but then it was time for Redhage to take a planned break.
He returned for the last three weeks of the regular season with Vigor also back in the line-up and the Redbacks were pretty close to full strength through that stretch to end up in fourth position at the end of the regular season.
They then beat the South West Slammers in a hotly contested quarter-final series in three games before prevailing over the minor premier Willetton Tigers in the semi finals in two games to qualify for a first Grand Final in 18 years.
Last Friday night in Game 2 against the Tigers was the first time Lackovic had his preferred first 12 players all available with Bowen coming back from the Centre of Excellence to play helping form a dominant front court alongside Roberts, Vigor and Redhage.
Bowen will again be back for the Grand Final this Saturday night against the Joondalup City Wolves at Bendat Basketball Centre and Lackovic couldn’t be happier to see things come together at the right end of the campaign.
“Part of what we talked about at the start of the year was knowing we wouldn’t have our full repertoire of players, and this game was the first time we’ve had our full contingent of 12 players together. To see the growth and development of the group, and belief and culture of the team has been great,” Lackovic said.
“Our bench was significant in this win. KB had seven points in 10 minutes but then to close the game out and put the ball in the hands of Marshall Nelson, Shawn Redhage and Lee Roberts down the stretch, out of the 32 points in the fourth quarter those three combined for 27 of those.
“Playoffs is about making big plays and having guys step up in big moments and we are really comfortable knowing we have a number of guys who can do some pretty special things for us.”
Having overcome Willetton in the semi finals after the Slammers in the quarters means that Lackovic couldn’t possibly be happier with how hard his team has had to fight and how well they have had to play to make this Saturday night’s Grand Final.
He couldn’t hide his pride in his playing group and with the happiness he could see in so many people involved at the club to make a first Grand Final since 1999.
“We were playing a ridiculously tough, talented well-prepared team and then to see everybody here and see what it meant to everyone from our life members, previous players and coaches, the families and supporters makes you happy to know you can put a smile on their faces,” he said.
“There’s a real sense of exhilaration to be able to understand what it means for us as a club and players to make the Grand Final, but we are partially satisfied and not fully satisfied yet.
“It’s a significant step for us as a club and there were so many old faces here and to look around and see the sheer joy in their faces to know we’ve taken the first step to a big goal we set ourselves at the start of the year is rewarding.
“I’m just so proud of the players with the way they stuck together and had a belief in each other, and what we’re about. Over 40 minutes they were able to finish off the job.”
While the Redbacks are excited to be into Saturday night’s Grand Final, Lackovic is fully aware now that doing all the right things in preparation is now the key.
“It’s all about preparation now. Even when we were down 15-2 in this game, we just had to continue through the process and as of Saturday we started preparing physically with our rehab and mental preparation to know what their homework will be,” Lackovic said.
“It’s all about preparation and for us this is only half of what we set out to do at the start of the year. The guys are committed to understanding that whilst they are excited by getting to this point, they’re not satisfied.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)