Eight games into NBL22, the defending champions are in a familiar position on top of the ladder. After dropping their first two games to start the season, Dean Vickerman's squad have rattled off six straight wins, with none more impressive than last weekend's 88-84 nod over the Illawarra Hawks.
The win over the Hawks was rubber stamped with the sizzling performance of Matthew Dellavedova, giving the first glimpse of Melbourne's preseason plan when they acquired the long-time NBA guard.
To describe the 33-point outburst as a slumpbuster would be to put it mildly, with the 31-year-old drilling seven triples en route to his highest scoring outing as a professional. Entering the night 3-for-22 from long range on the season and averaging just 8.0 points per game, Dellavedova denies there were any mental roadblocks beginning to creep into his mind.
"I've been working hard on my offense; I feel like I'm a good shooter. I haven't shot as well as I would have liked over the last year or two with some interruptions," Dellavedova told ESPN.
"For my career I've been a good shooter, so I think being able to play extended minutes and shoot more in the rhythm of the offense has been good and I felt like it was a matter of time until some started falling."
Regardless of his long-term track record from beyond-the-arc, the Hawks gave Dellavedova the 'Ben Simmons treatment' on the perimeter, allowing the veteran guard the opportunity to shake off the rust and percolate from distance.
With just over five minutes remaining in the first period, United ran a double screen set at the top with Jo Lual-Acuil and Jack White setting the picks. Illawarra's Tyler Harvey went under both, finding himself at the free-throw line by the time Dellavedova pulled up to hit nothing but net to open up his account.
Oftentimes in that scenario, the second big, in this case Sam Froling, would switch on to Dellavedova. Running a double screen is an impactful way of creating a guard on a big mismatch on the perimeter. In this instance, Froling simply tagged Dellavedova and left him wide open as per Illawarra's plan for guarding the Melbourne star.
His second triple is what could be described as a 'dare three', as Harry Froling switched onto Dellavadova and seemed to have no interest in contesting the long-range look which once again found the bottom of the net.
"Each team defends differently in the NBL. I've seen different coverages and have been getting used to different reads off pick-and-rolls but those are shots I work on at training every day," Dellavedova said.
"I feel like I'm getting a better understanding of where my shots are going to come from in games. Obviously the more you work on those the more you feel comfortable. You just step in and let it fly."
After connecting on two more triples in quick succession, Dellavedova was officially on fire.
His fifth connection from three was a pure heat check from the right wing in transition as Duop Reath put a hand in his face but it didn't matter. If you needed any indication of how good Dellavedova was feeling at this point, watch him hold the follow through as he trots back down the floor.
"Once you make a couple the hoop looks a bit bigger and it's a matter of trying to get open for another look," Dellavedova said. "Shea Ili hit me with that pass and as soon as I crossed halfway and saw he was coming towards me I was calling for it. He hit me in rhythm, and it was just a matter of getting a look at the rim at that point."
Coming out of halftime, head coach Brian Goorjian confirmed the Hawks were following instructions with their coverages, with United sharpshooters Chris Goulding and David Barlow the pregame perimeter concern.
"I told them at halftime, you're doing what I asked," Goorjian told the broadcast. "The scout, we're playing Delly how we want to play Delly. We're going the under on on-balls, we're contesting the three but not going after the three and it's hurt us."
While it could be questioned whether the threes could be considered "contested", the threat of Dellavedova's scoring mentality forced a change in the opposition's approach for the first time this season. Establishing himself as a scoring threat has been a key directive for Dellavedova from training camp.
"As that lead guard and the passer, I just believe that if everyone plays you as a pass first guy, they take away all the avenues you want to pass to," Vickerman told ESPN on media day.
"He needs that really good balance of scoring and being that threat and it collapses everyone, and we get the other part we want from him which is making everyone else better."
The second half produced 14 more points for Dellavedova, though eight of those came on a combination of drives to the basket and via the free-throw line.
"It keeps the defence honest. It opens up other things whether it's getting downhill in the paint for a floater or finish at the rim which puts pressure on the big. If they start helping off the shooters like (Chris) Goulding and Caleb (Agada), you can start kicking it out as well," Dellavedova said.
With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Dellavedova was in complete control, as Harvey and Xavier Rathan-Mayes took turns harassing him off the three-point line and into the paint.
With the scores tied at 71, Dellavedova ran a pick-and-roll with Ariel Hukporti. Unlike the first half, Harvey fought over the screen, allowing an easy path downhill into the paint for a drop off to Mason Peatling on the baseline for an and-1 opportunity.
"It was more the guard going over the screen and having the big in centre field playing the pick-and-roll two-on-two," Dellavedova explained. "They didn't want to leave Goulding at all because if he gets one look, he's hot before he's even shot it. That gave us space to operate, whether it was hitting Jo, Peatling, White or Hukporti."
Many will be quick to remind you not to expect Dellavedova to score 30 points a night, which is true, but it's also missing the point. Against a legendary coach and a squad that many expect to be one of the prime championship contenders, the threat of Dellavedova scoring from the perimeter altered the coverage, which looms as an important factor in easing the load on Goulding and Agada as the season progresses.
"I feel like I have shot it well at training and playing pickup," Dellavedova said. "I just haven't played a ton of basketball the last few years with the pandemic and injuries. I haven't had consistent period of time playing.
"That's been one of the great things about coming back here to play. Being able to shoot those threes off the dribble, that's one of the big benefits. It's been feeling good for a long time, but it is nice to see some results pay off."
It's not about knocking down seven triples per outing; it's about keeping the defense honest. Vickerman and Dellavedova understand that holds the key to unlocking further weapons.