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Seven Seconds or Less: Here's why the Phoenix is struggling
1. The offence was bad
Even when they struggle defensively, the South East Melbourne Phoenix can usually lean on their explosive offence to keep them afloat. That certainly wasn't the case in round 16, as their scoring was sluggish at best and downright awful at worst.
A ten-point first quarter set the tone against Perth, and it was only eight made free throws in the second that briefly kept them close. At one point late in the second quarter, they had more turnovers (eight) than made field goals (seven).
Things looked better against Sydney, but their 50 points in the first half came on the back of 24 from John Roberson. When the superstar guard was held to just three points after the main break, the Phoenix stalled once again and scored just 31 the rest of the way. Across the round, they shot 43.7% from the field and 35% from deep. They're not terrible numbers in a vacuum, but nowhere near good enough without a strong defensive effort.
2. The defence was... also bad
Bad when it mattered, at least. It was a promising start on that end against Perth, as they made the Wildcats work for every shot. Mitch Creek said at half time that they were happy with their efforts holding the home side to 44 points. A 30-point third term quickly killed that positivity and turned the game into a blowout well before the final break.
It was a shootout in Sydney and, while the Phoenix managed to keep pace early, the Kings stayed on fire for the full four quarters. Again, it wasn't a pretty picture across the whole weekend, as the Wildcats and the Kings shot a combined 51.8% from the field and 45.2% from three. Sometimes teams just hit shots, but there were plenty of open looks given far too easily in both contests.
3. Mitch Creek's struggles continue
It was another rough weekend for Mitch Creek, as he had just 21 points across both games. It's now been five games since he scored 20 points or shot over 50% from the field, which is remarkable given his consistency through the rest of the season. He struggled to create separation or finish at the rim, and he even fed Western Australia with a pair of missed free throws on Friday night.
During that game against Perth, Liam Santamaria said in commentary that Creek had been struggling with Achilles soreness over the last month. He also reported that Creek was feeling as good as he had in a month. Given the cold shooting that ensued, Phoenix fans would be hoping there's still some more recovery to come. With so much of his game relying on effort and athleticism, any sort of soreness is bound to have a big impact on Creek's performance.
4. Devondrick Walker debuts
The Phoenix unveiled their newest import, sharpshooting wing Devondrick Walker last week. The Texan signed with Perth in 2017 but never played after injuring his foot, and he certainly looked comfortable on what could have been his home court in Friday's matchup with the Wildcats. His first NBL points came on an isolation jumper to beat the half time buzzer, and he got rolling late to finish with 16 points off the bench.
That promising debut was as good as it got for Walker, as he missed all four of his field goals and failed to hit the scoreboard against Sydney. He certainly looked the part, with an abundance of athleticism and a nice shooting stroke, but the Phoenix will need him to find his feet ASAP.
5. Lack of depth more glaring than ever
It's been no secret that the Phoenix lack the depth of the NBL's best teams. It was never more obvious than in round 16, as they were killed by the opposition's lesser lights.
Filling in for the injured Damian Martin, Mitch Norton had a season-high 18 points for the Wildcats, while five players scored in double figures. For the Phoenix, only Walker (16 PTS) and Roberson (11 PTS) managed to hit that mark. It was a similar story against the Kings. Didi Louzada led the Kings with 18 points off the bench, while the Phoenix had just one reserve hit the scoreboard at all. With Adam Gibson injured, there are evidently very few players on the roster that coach Simon Mitchell trusts to put on the court.
6. Import inconsistency
Devondrick Walker's up-and-down debut weekend has already been covered, but there was little consistency from the Phoenix's other imports either. Both John Roberson and Tai Wesley showed some promising signs, but ultimately faltered when push came to shove.
Roberson started quickly in both games but was almost invisible down the stretch. He scored seven of his team's ten first-quarter points in Perth, but scored just four more for the rest of the game. The drop-off was even more stark against Sydney-- he was unstoppable in the first half with 24 points, then failed to hit the scoreboard again until the contest was dead in the fourth quarter.
Wesley's yo-yo form continued, as he started the weekend with a 2-11 shooting performance and five turnovers against the Wildcats. His second game bounceback was a little less spectacular than Roberson's, but 12 points on 50% shooting and 7 rebounds was a step in the right direction after a tough couple of weeks. Those types of performances won't be enough, though, if the Phoenix want to finish in the top four.
7. Is a Finals berth a pipe dream?
"Forget the mathematics; if the Phoenix play like this, there’s no point to them being in the finals."
Those were Chris Anstey's words during the third quarter against Perth. It was a valid point in the midst of a 27-7 Wildcats run, and it deserves some consideration now. Was round 16 a sign that the Phoenix simply aren't up to a finals run?
It's tough to judge them too harshly for losses to the league's best two teams, but the road to the finals suddenly looks a lot harder to traverse. Now two wins outside the top four, they'll need results to fall their way, as well as plenty of improvement internally, if they want to extend their season.