'We needed a circuit breaker': Melbourne United have kept their season alive ... for now

Melbourne United had just coughed up an eight-point lead in under 50 seconds in an unthinkable and unexplainable collapse against the Perth Wildcats on December 12. To make matters worse, they had a six-hour flight home to think about the series of brain fades that had seemingly ended their season.

The loss sunk United to 6-11 on the season, with any thought of reaching the Play-In Tournament an apparent pipedream.

"Everyone was searching after that game," head coach Dean Vickerman told ESPN. "I just knew we needed a circuit breaker.

"It was sending a message that from here on in we're going to free it up, shoot more threes, just do some things that were exciting. We got total buy in about trying something different and freshen it up."

Shorthanded and stagnant, Melbourne's season has sputtered along to that point. Since the collapse in Perth, Vickerman's squad has remarkably looked every bit a contender, with the obvious caveat being that they may not have a chance to prove their credentials deep into February.

Melbourne have now won six of their last eight games, posting the league's third most efficient offence (116.3 points per 100) and fourth best defence (giving up 109.3 points per 100), which adds up to the second-best net rating (+7.0 points per 100) behind the red-hot Sydney Kings.

The stretch has coincided with the return of Shea Ili from concussion as the pace setter for the club at the point, while the import addition of Marcus Lee, improved play of Rayjon Tucker and the sizzling hot shooting of Chris Goulding has all been an added boost to a rejuvenated offensive squad.

"The last couple of years we've ranked around the top three in pace, I think we're still eighth in the league, I haven't looked since the mid-point of the year to see how much it's increased but you definitely feel like it's jumped a level," Vickerman said.

"Having Tucker run, Shea with the kick ahead, Marcus and his ability to sprint. I think that's the element we were really searching for at the start of year and we've seen the change."

It's hardly a surprise that the let it fly mentality has been popular with the group, in particular Goulding, who continues to show little sign of slowing down as a star in the league. Across the first fifteen games of the season, United's 3-point rate was 41.8% (percentage of shot attempts from three), compared with the last eight games, where that number has jumped to 43.1% - the highest mark in the league in that stretch.

Goulding himself has seen his 3-point attempts jump from 7.6 per game to 10.4 over his last nine games, while his 40% clip remains elite.

"To go on a run, we needed to hunt greater 3-point shots and we needed to try and shoot as close to forty as possible. The stat hasn't lied right now, if we shoot over forty, I'm not sure we've taken a loss in this period," Vickerman said.

"He's the guy that can create the three in so many different ways. As we've ramped up the number, he certainly bought into that one more than anyone and has certainly hunted more than previous."

Additionally, the highflying Lee has added an extra dimension to the offence as an above the rim threat in pick-and-roll scenarios. Lee is taking 85% of his shots at the rim, where he is finishing 75% of those opportunities - 16% above league average.

"When you think about what he could give us numbers wise, it's not far away. The efficiency and the rim protection and the way the boys have learned how to pass to him, those things I didn't know. I didn't know how impactful he was going to be on wins and losses. The impact has been so much more than we thought," Vickerman admitted.

Lee tallied 22 points and 10 rebounds across a season-high 33 minutes of play in the club's latest win over the JackJumpers, with fellow big man and former college teammate Isaac Humphries exiting early with a knee injury. Humphries is expected to miss the next few games minimum with a left MCL sprain, leaving Lee to shoulder the big man load.

"Physically in the second half we subbed him for two minutes and I'm not sure he totally needed it. The way he plays, he can manage pretty good minutes, it's more can he stay out of foul trouble with people coming at him and him protecting the rim and doing the things he does. We're hopeful over this weekend that both games he'll push over 30," Vickerman said.

Given the way the season had transpired, the meltdown in Perth could have been the time to wave the white flag. Instead, they find themselves very much in the mix for the Play-In Tournament. United have two trips to New Zealand, a trip to Brisbane and another road game in Adelaide in a daunting four-game stretch, before rounding out the season at home against the 36ers.

If United does beat the odds to sneak into the postseason, they will undoubtedly do so as one of the hottest teams in the league. That in itself will command more than a little attention from the logjam of teams fighting tooth and nail to ensure their season extends beyond 28 regular season outings.

"We sold it a while ago. We just said that we're playing finals for the rest of the year," Vickerman said. "This is what finals basketball looks like, this is how we have to play, this is the percentage. We're going to shoot the ball at the end of the game, we're going to do all these things give ourselves the best chance.

"At the end of the day, if we win out and finish above .500 we give ourselves every chance to be a playoff team. That's where we want to be, we have the process and let's have some fun doing it."