1. A win is a win, but this one was ugly
There was some impressive play from the South East Melbourne Phoenix in their win against the Illawarra Hawks. There was also some of the worst basketball you'll see in the NBL, as their struggles in the first and fourth quarters bookended a crucial but ugly win.
The Phoenix found themselves trailing at quarter time thanks to seven turnovers and a 6-17 shooting effort from the field. Fast forward to the final break, where the 13-point lead they had built seemed unassailable. Any such thoughts went out the window when they started the last quarter shooting 1-10 and the Hawks went on an 11-2 run. If the Phoenix want to make a late run at the finals, they'll need to find some consistency fast.
2. Stunning Q2 proves the difference
For as bad as the Phoenix were in the first term, they well and truly made up for it with their effort in the second. They erased an eight-point deficit and turned it into an eight-point lead, with most of the damage done in the space of five minutes. After racking up 11 turnovers in the first quarter and a half, the Phoenix had none for the rest of the first half and closed with a 18-6 run.
Most impressive was the fact that they were without their superstars for much of the quarter. John Roberson, Mitch Creek and Dane Pineau all spent long stints on the bench with foul trouble, leaving a void on both ends of the floor. The Phoenix would surely be happy to see some of their lesser lights step up, as they were still able to shoot 10-13 from the field and 5-6 from deep while also holding the Hawks to just 13 points.
3. Kendall Stephens is back
All in all, it's been a rough first season in the NBL for Kendall Stephens. After starting in eight of the Phoenix's first nine contests, his play fell off to the point that he played five minutes in their last three games combined.
That surely won't happen again for a while, after he singlehandedly broke the game open with a stunning second term. He poured in 14 points for the quarter, including four makes from deep, on his way to a career-high 20 points off the bench. South East Melbourne have struggled to find consistent production from anyone not named Creek or Roberson, so a change in fortunes for Stephens would be a huge positive going forward.
4. Dane Pineau is a genuine star
There's every chance Dane Pineau will win the league's Most Improved Player award at the end of the season. He's quickly transcending the race for that award, though, and developing into a star of the competition.
Against the Hawks, he scored 14 points on 100% shooting and pulled down 18 rebounds, with three blocked shots thrown in for good measure. That came hot on the heels of his 20 rebound effort against the Breakers a week ago. He now sits fourth in the league for rebounding with 8.5 per outing, and his blossoming offensive game has been an unexpected bonus.
5. What to make of Tai Wesley?
With Keith Benson's departure, the Phoenix are currently running with just two imports. One of those is big man Tai Wesley, who has struggled for consistency since returning from injury in early December.
There were some positive signs against the Hawks, mostly on the defensive end. Illawarra's first four possessions all ended in missed shots guarded by Wesley, with a block and a charge drawn the highlights. The Hawks scored seven points before he subbed out with 4:31 left in the first; they added 19 more before quarter time while he sat.
Offensively, though, he was a non-factor before fouling out late. His first field goal was a layup in the third quarter, and he finished with five points on 2-11 shooting. Looking to make plays for others didn't help, as his four assists were offset by four turnovers. Overall, it was another rough night for the Grown Man.
6. The finals hunt is still alive
The phrase "must-win game" gets tossed around a lot, but this was a pivotal game in every sense for the Phoenix. Sitting eighth on the ladder and facing the only team below them, they needed a win to stay close to the top four and a place in the finals.
With round 15 now in the books and another win banked, they've jumped past the New Zealand Breakers into seventh and are just two games behind the fourth-placed Melbourne United. There's still eight games left on the schedule for the Phoenix; if they're good enough, that's still plenty of time to make a run at a top four finish.
7. There's still room for a third import
Benson struggled to have an impact in the NBL, and that's part of the reason the Phoenix are sitting outside of the top four. The win over the Hawks was a win, but it also showed that they could still use some more talent if they want to make a strong finals push.
If Liam Santamaria is to be believed-- and he most certainly is-- then GM Tommy Greer and coach Simon Mitchell are working hard to find the right replacement for Benson. With NBA-level names like KJ McDaniels, Wayne Selden and Jonathon Simmons reportedly in the mix, the Phoenix still have to be considered a real threat this season. Their depth was on display against the Hawks, but another top-level talent could be the difference down the stretch.