GAME 1 of their quarter-final series was a remarkably intense and competitive affair and given Perth Redbacks coach Nik Lackovic learned much of his competitive drive from Stirling Senators coach Mike Ellis, don’t expect much to change this weekend between the two teams.
The opening game of the quarter-final series last Friday night at Belmont Oasis was quite the battle between the Redbacks and Senators, and that’s no surprise given the quality, experience and depth on either side and given the men they are coached by.
They might have had some heated battles in recent years against one another, but there’s great mutual respect between both Lackovic and Ellis as coaches, and indeed the playing squads even if the competitiveness in the heat of battle can take over.
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The quality of both teams coming into the series always meant it was likely to be a cracking contest.
Consider between the two teams there is NBL experience between Shawn Redhage, Cody Ellis, Michael Vigor, Joel Wagner, Corban Wroe, Jackson Hussey and Caleb Davis to go with star imports Lee Roberts, Mo Barrow, Justin King and Robert Anshila.
Add in veterans Ben Smith, Tom Witts and Austin Bruton, and emerging players like Zac Gattorna, Jayden Coburn, Jay Thwaites and Ash Litterick and there’s no shortage of capable talent out there doing battle.
That all created a tremendous Game 1 with the Redbacks eventually winning 114-109 with Stirling’s lead of 11 points the biggest of the night as the teams shot a combined 82/160 from the field, 25/54 from three-point range and 34/43 from the foul line.
Highlighting the quality of the contest was the combined 60 to 24 assist to turnover ratio too.
That all leads into a fascinating weekend ahead starting with Game 2 at Warwick Stadium on Friday night with the Senators needing to win that to force a decider back at Belmont Oasis on Saturday night.
Redbacks coach Lackovic might have liked his team to keep the Senators to a few less points, but it’s a game like that with two strong, deep and talented teams that highlights just how strong a position the SBL is in right now.
“We scored 33 points in the first quarter and were down seven. I had to come into the timeout and look at the guys, and say that I think we’ll be fine. That’s a hard thing to say and swallow but you back the character of the group and their ability to make adjustments on the fly,” Lackovic said.
“They made some ridiculously tough shots and we give up 109 points in a playoff game and come away with a win. I think that highlights how the league has grown and where it’s got to. You have guys like Cody, Caleb Davis, two really good solid imports, Corban Wroe, Litterick and then you have a look at our line-up with the guys we’ve got who have all played overseas.
“We have the most credentialled player in the history of the league playing for us and if I’m a spectator sitting in the stands and sitting two metres around from the court with the joy and love all the guys have for the game, it’s fantastic.
“Our crowd loved it and it was played in such a good spirit with high competitiveness. It was a good spectacle but I’d prefer the numbers to be a little lower from the coaches’ point of view.”
The mutual respect between coaches Lackovic and Ellis is definitely there even if it might not be obvious during the heat of battle, but that only goes to show the strong competitive drive both men possess and how much winning means to them.
Lackovic is proud that his attitude as coach is evident in the way his team plays and he sees the same in the way Ellis has his Senators playing.
“I’ve known Mike since I was 15 years of age so for almost 30 years and I’ve learned a lot of things from Mike Ellis. The biggest thing I’ve learned was how to become super competitive and that’s where the respect is,” Lackovic said.
“I respect him and his family, as he does mine, so much and we are two guys who are trying to get our team across the line. The personality of our group follows that. We understand that to play at this end of the season you have to do a lot of things right.
“You have to put in the hard work pre-season, develop, recruit, perform and make adjustments. That’s why we love what we’re doing at this level at this end of the season. We have two highly competitive teams individually and collectively that are never going to take a back foot out there.
“I’ve got so much respect for all their guys. Corban is a unique competitor and he’s a great example of not wanting to take a backward step.
“We’ve got a guy like our captain Joel Wagner who throws his body on the line and takes on any defensive assignment one through to three. The spirit and the way this game was played was at a really high level, and so was the competitiveness and the class of how these guys executed.”
While the Redbacks did well to come away with the five-point Game 1 win, they were put back under pressure late in the game last Friday night with the Senators coming back at them hard late with some big shots and forcing some crucial turnovers.
That led to some nervous moments for Lackovic and while last year’s quarter-final series against the South West Slammers where they came back from losing Game 1 pushed them to the limit physically, he expects the Senators to push them to the limit mentally.
“We understand this is a series and making sure that there’s going to be individual possessions, particularly down the stretch, where we might look to have the game under control and we can’t allow a team like Stirling get the ascendancy for one or two possessions,” he said.
“The Bunbury series last year, if we were to reflect on that, that was a physically gruelling series that made us mentally and physically tougher. This one is going to challenge our resolve from an IQ point of view and our guys accept that.
“We had to make adjustments to some of their actions and they force you to think. That’s credit to them and I’d like to think we force them to think the same way. We were able to close this game out when it mattered.”
It took all his focus to not get caught up in individual match ups like Ellis against Redhage and Davis against Barrow given they were among the battles that were worth the price of admission alone.
But at the end of the day, his job is to ensure his team is doing all the right things to give themselves the best chance of winning so that’s where his focus remains.
“I get told off constantly by my wife because I don’t get excited enough when guys are making big plays or hitting big shots, but all I’m thinking about is the very next possession, match ups and how we’re covering a certain possession down the floor I’m expecting them to run,” Lackovic said.
“There are times where my mouth might have opened a centimetre or two and I was in awe of both teams making big shots and big plays. With the intensity and grit that Lee had in the first half, and the plays he made with his footwork inside is amazing.
“He is a tough cover for anyone in any league and for him to come out and do the things for us that he does is incredible.
“My responsibility is to continue to focus on what outcomes we want to get out of individual situations and then review the game and look at those things. I just can’t get caught up in those scenarios, I have to make sure we continue to grow and get smarter for Game 2.”