On Saturday night, the South East Melbourne Phoenix continued to assert their early dominance on the league with a 106-102 win over the Illawarra Hawks in front of a packed Melbourne Arena.
Despite a sub-optimal shooting night, going 11-39 from the 3 point line, and the continued absence of star Tai Wesley, the Phoenix still managed to look like a well oiled machine that are going to be a handful all season.
Here are 4 takeaways I came away with from the night -
John Roberson is an MVP candidate
Phoenix GM Tommy Greer spoke with glee after the signing of Roberson to the Phoenix, and three games in it's easy to see why. An an off shooting night for the team, Roberson still managed to back up his 9/11 three point night against Brisbane with 5/9 from behind the arc on Saturday night - I don't think it's premature to say that in consideration of volume, efficiency, and shot versatility, he is the #1 shooter in the competition.
What was just as impressive was his heady, well-rounded floor game. Roberson picked his looks carefully, not gunning outside of the flow of the offense, and consistently made the right play with the ball in his hands, displaying his vision on route to a game high 10 assists.
With 26 points on only 11 shots, along with 4 rebounds and his 10 assists to only 2 turnovers, Roberson's performance was lethal, efficient, and put a dagger through the hopes of Illawarra's chances last night.
Tai Wesley will be missed, but also accounted for
It's with some irony that South East Melbourne's weakest shooter in their starting lineup is the guy that helped enable them to put out some of the most well spaced lineups on the floor last night.
With Tai Wesley sidelined for the time being, question marks loomed about how the team would fare, and who exactly would make up the minutes. With the signing of Jaye Crockett, an athletic, natural 4 man, it seemed we had our answer, but the import only played a total of 8:35 in the win.
Instead we saw the Phoenix run with a smaller lineup to start the game, with Mitch Creek sliding up to the 4 position, and Kendall Stephens taking over the starting 3 spot.
We've seen a lot of teams try to go small this season, and it's been met with mixed results. Brisbane, who are rolling with a similarly sized lineup this year, have had some success offensively, but have been at a disadvantage on the boards and on defense - a natural trade-off when running a lineup with 4 smalls and a big.
Fortunately, the Creek 'freak' is an anomaly, and his strength, physicality, and tenacity inside allowed him to effortlessly move up a spot. As a result, the Phoenix still managed to handily win the rebound count, 47-38, and put out an extra perimeter shooter on the floor which gave Creek ample spacing to attack the rim on route to his 23 points.
South East Melbourne did still have moments where they went somewhat more traditionally, with Benson at the 5. Yet in the minutes where both Benson and Crockett in particular shared the court, the spacing appeared stifled, and the Phoenix, usually endlessly whipping the ball around, appearing discombobulated offensively, seemingly thrown from the offensive identity with such an archaic group on the floor.
Illawarra tried to play small too - but without success
Matt Flinn's hands were somewhat forced with foul trouble to AJ Ogilvy. He did not foul out, but Illawarra's only true (healthy) centre, only played 21 minutes in the loss.
His absence during key moments of the game had a profound effect on the Hawks ability to procure rebounds and protect the rim. With the challenged back court defense of Ball and Brooks on display, and with no interior defence to help, the Phoenix were presented with a comfortable runway to the rim for prolonged periods of the game.
The Hawks had absolutely no answer for Creek, as he played downhill all game and consistently got to the cup. 14 of his 17 shot attempts were in the paint, and he got to the line for 10 free throws (making 7).
Not having Josh Boone as an alternative in the middle was certainly missed, but when the Hawks starting trotting out lineups with Tim Coenraad at the 5, they weren't helping their case. These *ultra* small ball lineups seemingly forfeited any hopes to compete on the interior, and played into South East Melbourne's hands, as they themselves could play smaller, more effective lineups without punishment.
It was a game like Saturday night where the Hawks more traditionally sized 4 men were both effective, and underutilized. David Anderson and Sam Froling came off the bench for Illawarra to score a combined 17 points in 23 minutes of play, using their size to exploit mismatches on the floor. For Froling in particular, it appeared to be the makings of a breakout game of sorts, with his ability to attack the rim and finish with both hands on display.
While Coenraad starting at the 4 was a much needed change to the starting lineup, Coenraad at the 5 was... a stretch. Closing with him on the floor made sense, as he played well in his minutes, accumulating 16 points and providing Ball and Brooks with a handy pick and pop threat. However the minutes with Coenraad at the 5 hurt them, and the Hawks may have been in a better position to win this game if they had Ogilvy and the 6'11 Froling handle all of the centre minutes.
LaMelo had a quiet line, but his impact was pronounced
With endless 'oohs' and 'aahs' whenever LaMelo Ball did anything noteworthy, it was clear throughout the game that a good portion of the 10,000 capacity Melbourne crowd were there to see the Next Star light it up.
In the eyes of those begging for the 18 year old to take the game over, perhaps Ball fell short of expectations, taking only 9 shots to amass a modest 11 points. Instead, it should be to LaMelo's credit that he was able to play such a controlled game in spite of the constant jeering of the crowd to make a play.
Ball played with composure all night, playing within the scope of the offence and doing all the little things to help the team. From leading the team in rebounding from the point position, to intelligent touch passes and hockey assists that will go unnoticed in the box score, LaMelo played a great floor game on the offensive end.
While he continues to act like a bit of a headless chook on defence, as many players of his experience would likely be in his position, he was at least active, nearly causing a bunch of turnovers with his anticipation in the passing lanes. It'll be on Ball to develop a greater understanding of defensive concepts and discipline to turn into an effective player on that end. In doing so, his great size and length at the point position should eventually turn in to an asset that could really trouble opposing guards.
While expectations to shoulder any further scoring load are unfair on the youngster, it was apparent that he could've been more assertive attacking the rim offensively. While the jump shot continues to abandon him (1-5 from 3 last night, now 2-16 for the season), he has found success getting to the rim and finishing or getting to the line. In the few times he took it upon himself to get to the rim, he made several dazzling finishes with his size and touch.
It was a commendable effort for the Hawks to stay in touch with arguably the most in form team in the competition right now, but should the Phoenix have shot a more on-brand percentage from behind the line, it may have looked a lot uglier.