Jock Landale proves he's the key to Melbourne United's success

There's being in the zone, and then there's whatever Jock Landale experienced during Tuesday evening's do-or-die semifinal game.

With a stacked Melbourne United team down 17 to the South East Melbourne Phoenix, and his season seemingly headed toward an early finish, Landale entered an enviable state of flow. Every time the ball touched his hands, good things happened. He missed his first shot of the game, but proceeded to make his next 11, leading a comeback at Qudos Bank Arena to lift United into the NBL Grand Final for the third time in four years.

"Bro, I went blank," Landale told ESPN after the game, with ice wrapped around his right knee. "There was never a moment where I was freaking out. I was just like, no, I've got so much self-belief in this team and I've talked a massive game about this team and myself the whole year, and that's just me creating that self-belief that we deserve this.

"That's why I think, going into this, no matter what happens and no matter how far we get down, I feel as though we're gonna be able to weather their storm and come out on top."

Landale did it all. Single coverage in the low post was barbecue chicken for the Australian Boomers big-man, he crashed the boards with aggression, while staying out of foul trouble, but it was his trio of three-pointers in the second quarter which helped spur his team's comeback.

And that's not even mentioning his impact on the defensive end, blocking and altering shots with his verticality and rebounding at the high level we've seen from him over the second half of this NBL season.

"It felt like I had it going tonight," Landale said. "That much flow and that high pressure of a game, knowing that the season was on the line... I've had halves, I've had quarters where I've felt that good, but never a complete game. I was like, f---, I'm just dominating this s---."

Landale was the last major player signed for the 2021 NBL season, in the ultimate luxury for an already-impressive United franchise. The 25-year-old planned to come in and play a role: run the floor, play solid defence, and be complementary for the talented roster. It became clear early in the piece, though, that he'd be more than that. He was too talented to be just a great role player. Landale draws double teams on the catch, can score at all three levels and, despite United suiting up the likes of Chris Goulding and Mitch McCarron every night, is the guy Dean Vickerman centres his offence around.

"I got bracketed into a role in Europe, and that's not to say that was a bad thing because that toughened me up mentally," Landale said. "Coming here, playing with this freedom, seeing what it's like being the main guy on a team and the coverages I've seen. I've f---ng seen it all this year. Europe, I was always a third, fourth, fifth option; I didn't see the coverages I've seen here. Having the freedom now to be able to face-up, pick and pop non-stop, I've just learned how to generate my own shots and create for others."

Landale's dominance is what's made United the overwhelming favourite to win the 2021 NBL title, and his impact was made even more clear when he wasn't on the floor.

Just look back to Game 2 of this very semifinals series, where Landale was held to under 14 minutes because of foul trouble. He was a +10, in an 11-point loss. In that contest, Vickerman had lost his focal point and the player who most prominently leads from the front, and it sent United to a precarious Game 3; one loss away from being sent packing.

Landale made an effort to remain on the floor in the third and deciding game of the series, and the result was clear.

"That's why you bring people of that calibre back," United's CEO, Vince Crivelli, told ESPN after Tuesday's win. "It's his character, and it's that he wanted to be here; those two things, combined with his calibre, is the reason why you believe in him."

Landale has played in high-pressure situations before; he was a starter for the Boomers during the 2019 FIBA World Cup, and has played at the highest level in Europe. Still, he learned a lot from what turned out to be a competitive semi-finals series against his team's cross-town rivals.

From Game 2 onwards, the Phoenix brought a level of energy and grit that clearly stifled United. An adjustment was made from Vickerman's team, and it worked. Up next for Landale and his team are a seasoned Perth Wildcats looking for a third straight title. And with the first two games of the Grand Final to be played in Perth -- United, the league's No. 1 seed, was forced to give up home court advantage because of Victoria's latest COVID-19 outbreak -- he knows how important it is to carry that lesson over.

"We have to generate our own pressure and create our own energy in our minds, because that Game 2, we saw a side of us where we came in cute," Landale said. "We came in pretty. Coming to Perth creates that pressure for us, and closing out that series is gonna be really tough."

Landale knows that, if things are clicking with his game, then United is in for a good chance to win it all. On Tuesday night, he left it all on the floor. "I'm gonna go get myself a beer," he said, exhaustedly walking back to the locker room. "You can print that."

In order to get past a proven Wildcats team -- who are still wildly competitive, even without Bryce Cotton -- and win an NBL championship, Landale knows he has to do it again.

"Understanding that every game is so important, every possession is so important," he said. "For me, personally, just making sure I'm on the floor... It's really important for me to be out there right now in high pressure situations, because it opens other guys up."