So, after a semifinal round that played largely to expectations, we've finally got to the big dance. The NBL's top two sides, both from a season-record perspective and an aesthetic standpoint, square off in what may very well amount to a classic five-game series.
In truth, the indicators were there for all to see.
Melbourne United and Adelaide 36ers were the top two teams in defensive efficiency and in point differential through the season, per RealGM. That's key, as no eventual champion has finished outside the top two in defensive deficiency over the past five seasons and no championship team in the past six years finished outside the top two in point differential. This is the series we deserved.
United swept the 36ers in the regular season, but it's dangerous to parse too much from those matchups. In a scheduling anomaly, the two sides completed their season series before Christmas. At the time, both sported middling records, still searching for an identity and the mysterious alchemy that flips everyone onto the same page to turn championship wannabes into world-beaters. Both coaches were still juggling their rotations, and there were a number of key absences across the series.
Side note: Matt Hodgson was still starting, and Josh Childress had hardly played. The 36ers were 8-7 after that fourth loss to United, while Melbourne were 9-6, with neither team looking like the juggernauts they have become.
We already know both teams -- their strengths and weaknesses -- but what exactly did we learn from their semifinals? For the final time this season, let's get into the nuts and bolts of it.
2018 Finals record: 2 wins - 0 losses
Melbourne swept New Zealand Breakers because talent trumps all. It's not the fashionable thing to say, but sometimes it's as simple as that. United have more game-breakers than every other team in the competition - a get-out-of-jail-free card you can throw the ball to in the final six seconds of a possession.
We need something. Here. I'll hot potato the ball to you. Do something!
And in key moments, United were able to conjure gold from those potatoes.
In a tense Game 2, Chris Goulding and Casper Ware both canned monster off-the-dribble treys in the third quarter, each time keeping United within striking distance when an aimless possession here or there could have opened the door for the Breakers to build momentum.
The Breakers did a great job of forcing United into a half-court grind-fest, but ultimately United still prevailed because of said talent. They just have a higher margin for error.
Most will remember Josh Boone's putback in the final milliseconds of Game 2 at Spark Arena. But a sequence much earlier stood out for me.
With 3:45 left in the final quarter, Boone switched on the pick and roll onto the red-hot D.J. Newbill. Not only did Boone manage to stay in front of the Breakers star, he also contested the midrange jumper then circled back and grabbed the rebound.
It was one of those holy cow moments that provided the perfect snapshot of Boone's importance to United's structure on both ends. Dude is a beast. His ability to keep enemy possessions to one-and-done attempts is critical for United's defence.
The United centre gobbled up rebound after rebound. Sure, his scoring output was great but he's the perfect moocher, finishing off plays created by others, unburdened by the creative load. His quick feet, second jump, and work on the glass make him elite.
What to look out for in the Grand Final series
Tai Wesley should enjoy far more output against the 36ers. The Breakers smothered him with size and strength, refusing to bite on his assortment of up-fakes, and played him one-on-one, nullifying his passing game from the post. He was OK in Game 1, but really struggled in Game 2.
The 36ers prefer starting Mitch Creek and Childress next to Daniel Johnson, with the former guarding beefier rivals. Wesley won't be able to keep up in the open court, particularly if he's cross-matched, but he will have an advantage in the half court.
A key question to consider: How will United control the pace of the game? United won't mind up-and-down spurts, and may welcome it, particularly after the straitjacket applied by the Breakers. Yet it's not in their best interests to continually play at Adelaide's pace; the 36ers have more depth to call upon.
Keep a look out for United's crunch-time offence as well. They keep it fairly simple with a diet of high pick-and-rolls featuring Ware and Boone -- arguably, the best scoring guard and best rim-running big man combo in the league -- with Goulding filling in for Ware at times.
Ironically, Carrick Felix would have been more suited towards the Breakers - with his low usage, boundless energy, defensive-stopper game seemingly more suited to that grind-fest.
Casey Prather looked out of sorts against the Breakers -- he still played his role -- and it's unclear if he was still finding his rhythm; he looked lost at times on offence, but he'll relish the open court spectacle against the 36ers.
2018 Finals record: 2 wins - 0 losses
In theory, this should have been intriguing as the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object. The 36ers started as favourites, but the hope was that Perth's championship pedigree, and ability to clamp down on defence, could expose old self-doubts within the Adelaide camp.
Instead, we got a reminder of the 36ers' potency. They wiped the Wildcats off the court in Game 1 of their series, unleashing their amped-up offence in front of a frenzied home crowd.
Game 2 then saw Perth blitz the 36ers from the tip -- well, Bryce Cotton anyway -- with the Wildcats leading by as many as 18 points in the first half. But they couldn't maintain that offensive efficiency, and Cotton was gassed by the second half.
Still, the Wildcats led by 10 with five minutes remaining, and by five with 49 seconds to go. The fact the 36ers won from that position only fuels the burgeoning self-belief within the Adelaide camp.
Trailing by five points, with 49 seconds of regulation remaining, Nathan Sobey drove into Bryce Cotton, earning a controversial continuation call that cut the lead to three points.
Sobey missed the subsequent free throw, but the rebound ricocheted and Childress gobbled up the chaos ball and who converted his own three-point play. Adelaide had effectively wiped away what should have been a match-winning lead for the Wildcats within a wild three seconds of actual gameplay.
The Wildcats fluffed the finish, but the 36ers put themselves in position to win it.
What to look out for in the Grand Final series
As expected, in Game 2 the Wildcats sagged off and dared the 36ers to shoot from distance. Perth mixed up their defensive coverages, falling into a zone for long stretches. It was so extreme that Trevor Gleeson had his guards starting their defensive possessions well inside the defensive arc.
The 36ers chucked up a few outside shots in the opening minutes of Game 2 -- Creek made two to open the scoring for Adelaide -- but there's a largely philosophical reluctance to shoot from deep: Why chance threes when you can get layups?
Teams know to use this against the 36ers, and willingly cede the outside shot in order to pack the paint. There should be no surprises that Melbourne will do the same.
The 36ers still found ways to beat those tactics in the semifinals through their collective zippiness; sometimes they just beat their Wildcats counterpart off the dribble with a quicker first step. Sometimes, they beat their man to the offensive glass.
There was a nagging sense throughout the second half of the season that the Wildcats were dragging their feet. There was just something off about them -- whether they were a beat slower on rotations, or their failure at times to secure defensive rebounds at crucial stages.
United are a different beast altogether, and they won't offer the same chances as the Wildcats; their defence has been rock solid all year. They're a safer bet on the boards as well, meaning the 36ers will have to slog out more possessions in the half court - and that's a treacherous footing against the league's stingiest defence.
And when a crease appears, Casey Prather and Josh Boone are outstanding in wiping out mistakes from others on the defensive end.
Look for Joey Wright to downsize at times, pitching Creek at the centre position and running out a rangy, athletic five-man line-up that artificially ramps up the pace even further. This tactic also plays into Wright's vision of line-up versatility - all five guys hunt mismatches on offence, and can switch on defence, keeping their overall defensive integrity. There's an inherent risk when it comes to protecting the glass against Boone, and Wesley could wreak havoc on the low block against under-sized rivals.
Adelaide also can't sit back in a defensive shell and zone off as they did with the Wildcats. Give Ware and Goulding any airspace, and that is death.
The twin terrors on the wing of Childress and Creek are on fire; we know what to expect from them. Nathan Sobey will have his moments. It's Daniel Johnson who provides the X-factor.
Johnson had a subdued performance in Perth Arena, a massive problem if he repeats the same uneven performance against United. He looked out of sorts, often rushing decisions and played himself out of the game.
But he has the greatest capacity to turn a game in Adelaide's favour in this series -- a conflation of shoulder-shimmying, up-and-unders, hook shots and goodies in his arsenal. He can drag Boone away from the defensive glass just because of his range.
At the very least, Johnson can get Boone in foul trouble -- which takes Melbourne's best defensive eraser off the court.
The pace of the games will come down to offensive execution and floor balance. United will mix up the tempo, keeping the 36ers off-guard. The most interesting part will be in seeing how much United commit to the offensive glass, and how disciplined they are in getting bodies back in defensive transition immediately after a shot.
The 36ers have more depth, but United have more top-end talent. Watch for the 36ers to make runs when the likes of Casper Ware and Josh Boone sit, but there's a feeling of invincibility around United at the moment -- and it's hard to argue against them considering their record. They've lost two games since Christmas. They should be title favourites.
Adelaide's self-belief, meanwhile, is sky-high -- and that could be their greatest strength. There's a genuine belief in the club that they blew an opportunity last year, and this is the year for redemption. They also have great belief that their system can deliver a title.
Adelaide need to win at least once at Hisense Arena, a tall order given the strength of both squads at home. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if this series goes five games and into the annals of classic NBL lore.