Storyline: In a tight competition, United have been too inconsistent losing five home games despite having some outstanding wins over favourites Perth and Sydney. NBA import Shawn Long has starred, Mitch McCarron too, but offensively there are too many question marks. Melbourne are talented enough to make a run if they fix their problems.
What they have to do: In past seasons, 14 wins has meant a finals place but with a game or two separating third to eighth, this team may need 15 or 16 wins to be assured of the top-four. Two Illawarra games are must-win, everyone else is in the finals race. It will be a nervous January for United fans but they’ve made runs during this time before. They’ll also want to avoid a semi-final with Perth Wildcats, especially if the reigning champions and Sydney Kings remain as the top-two teams, and have home court advantage.
South East Melbourne Phoenix
Position: 5th. 8-10.
Games left: 10. New Zealand (home), Illawarra (away), Perth (a), Sydney (a), Brisbane (a), Cairns (a), Adelaide (a), Sydney (h), New Zealand (a), Melbourne (h).
Storyline: The first-year Phoenix are one of the most entertaining, high-scoring teams in the league. They have some fight too. But their defence remains suspect and it’s cost them badly, especially against top-four teams. Mitch Creek is arguably the MVP, at the least he’s a top candidate, while Dane Pineau is a strong contender for most improved player.
What they have to do: To make the finals the Phoenix have to go at least 6-4 which gets them to 14 wins. Two games with New Zealand stand out as opportunities, as do the Brisbane and Cairns games. Win all four and the Phoenix will almost be there. Despite being a first-year franchise, the Phoenix have loads of experience in Creek, Adam Gibson, Tai Wesley and Ben Madgen so that could prove crucial in pressure games.
Position: 1st, 12-2.
Games left: 7. Perth (away), Adelaide (a), Melbourne (a), Bendigo (a), Canberra (home), Adelaide (h), Sydney (h).
Storyline: The Flyers have taken all before them, with Opals stars Jenna O’Hea and Leilani Mitchell having stellar seasons and WNBA import centre Mercedes Russell proving one of the signings of the campaign. The Flyers bench is making more of an impact too so they have some growth still to come. If the Flyers are fully fit, then a title is within their grasp.
What they have to do: Melbourne and Canberra are close behind them so the Flyers must maintain their strong road record, 6-0, as they have some torrid away games starting with Perth-Adelaide trip this round. If the Flyers keep winning they will finish top and have home court for the whole finals. That will be crucial, as will keeping their stars fit and firing.
Position: 2nd. 10-4.
Games left: 7. Sydney (away), Adelaide (a), Southside (home), Canberra (a), Sydney (a), Townsville (a), Perth (h).
Storyline: The Boomers look better with each game and have worked their way into title considerations behind a balanced offence led by Lindsay Allen and Cayla George plus a productive bench. Opals centre Ezi Magbegor is taking big steps forward, her combination with George could prove telling. Canberra is on the same record and Flyers are above them but Melbourne is in the hunt.
What they have to do: The Boomers have every chance of a top-two finish but have a tricky schedule with two games against a dangerous Sydney, a tough Adelaide trip and finals previews against Southside and Canberra. If they are good enough to win the majority, they will deserve their spot.
Position: 8th. 3-12.
Games left: 6. Canberra (home), Perth (away), Southside (h), Perth (h), Sydney (a), Townsville (a).
Storyline: The Spirit have been better than their record suggests and have held their own against every side but paid for poor patches. Teenage guard Shyla Heal is a rising star and has clearly grown while learning from Opals guards Tessa Lavey and Kelly Wilson. Young forward Demi Skinner has taken her chances too and looks a talented scorer.
What they have to do: Every win will be treasured by the Spirit as they have a raft of finals contenders on their dance card. If they can muster a couple of wins they could shape the top-four, especially if they can take a win or two from their two Perth games.
Roy Ward is a Sports writer for The Age.