STORY OF THE WEEK
It might be the festive season, but all Melbourne United wanted was to give the Sydney Kings a giant lump of coal.
And in front of a big crowd at Qudos Bank Arena, the reigning champions did exactly that on Sunday, surging past Sydney in the final quarter to a 75-70 victory that left the Kings winless against United from their past 10 attempts, including three this season.
To rub further salt into Sydney's collective wound, the result saw United usurp the Kings and claim top spot on the NBL standings.
Merry Christmas indeed.
While this game never quite lived up to the dizzying highlights of their epic Round 7 encounter in Melbourne, there was no shortage of intensity.
The relative offensive paucity underlined the defensive efforts at both ends of the court, with countless shots from both squads coming under enormous pressure from committed defences. It's a defeat that will particularly rankle Sydney coach Andrew Gaze, who has had the Kings in superlative form over the recent going, winning 10 of their past 13 games after starting the season 0-2.
And once again, fourth-quarter execution - or rather, a lack of it - was an issue for the hosts, scoring just 10 points in the final stanza, their lowest total in a period all season.
In stark contrast, after playing haphazardly for the first 35 minutes, United found an offensive rhythm that again reinforced just how dangerous Melbourne is, especially down the stretch. United stared down an 11-point deficit in the third quarter and didn't blink, finding a much-needed spark from the explosive Chris Goulding, who stroked a pair of jumpers late in the period to keep the visitors within striking distance heading into the final quarter.
And fittingly, it would be Goulding who nailed the eventual game-sealer, his stepback jumper at the top of the key with 15 seconds remaining giving United a three-point advantage they would not relinquish.
Execution had been problematic for much of the second half for Sydney and the final seconds proved no different, with Jerome Randle forcing up a tough three-pointer to tie the game that never really looked likely.
It was a shot borne of desperation and perhaps a frustrated over-eagerness to make a statement of sorts.
And while Andrew Bogut won his individual matchup against fellow former NBA-er Josh Boone, United would be immensely satisfied to have negated the Sydney pivot's elite playmaking ability.
After registering a sublime performance of 10 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists against Cairns three days earlier, Bogut's influence was stymied to an extent, as although he had 11 points and 15 rebounds, he did not register a single assist, a sure sign United's defence had worked hard all game at preventing his Kings teammates from establishing scoring positions.
Neither team will readily admit it, but this was a borderline statement game from United - on the road against a formidable opponent and a pumped-up crowd - knowing they could well face the Kings in the playoffs.
The Kings too, will no doubt refocus; they've strung together some impressive performances of late, establishing themselves as genuine championship contenders in a season where there might only be two other teams with authentic claims.
For Sydney, figuring out how they can beat one of those teams - even once - is paramount. Roll on 2019.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Shawn Long (NZB) - Breakers coach Kevin Braswell labelled Long "probably the best big in the league" after an explosive 26-point, 14-rebound, two-block performance against Illawarra on Friday. The 96-79 win featured eight dunks from Long, who thoroughly dominated the Hawks frontcourt.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
G: Jerome Randle (SYD) - Led from the front against the Snakes, scoring 22 points and handing out seven assists as the Kings extended their winning streak. Added 15 points and three dimes against United in a low-scoring, defensive affair on Sunday.
G: Cam Gliddon (BNE) - Gliddon has been a regular member of the team of the week and for good reason. He's been a consistent scoring presence for the Bullets all season and this round was no exception, scoring 24 points - including three bombs from international waters - as the Bullets handed the Wildcats a 93-86 defeat.
F: David Andersen (ILL) - Turned back the clock with in the Hawks' stunning upset of the Wildcats on Sunday. In 21 minutes, the 38-year-old poured in 21 points as the hosts upended the stuttering Wildcats at the WIN Entertainment Centre.
F: Shawn Long (NZB) - See above.
C: Andrew Bogut (SYD) - As mentioned earlier, Bogut was at his versatile best against the Snakes, owning the boards and creating numerous scoring opportunities for his teammates. And while his defensive presence was no less substantial against Melbourne, altering many of the United attempts in the paint, he was unable to fully stamp his dominance on the game.
WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO
A Boxing Day clash between Melbourne and Adelaide at Melbourne Arena opens Round 11 and the grand final rematch from last season never fails to deliver an intense, physical battle, despite the starkly contrasting fortunes of both teams this season.