“That’s why they pay a marquee guy like that.”
Post-game, Dean Vickerman said what everyone in the 10,300 sold out crowd was thinking after witnessing Mitch Creek’s heroics.
Creek had played with his trademark relentlessness, but had also connected on four of five three-point attempts, including a pull-up in transition, another as the pick and roll ball-handler, as well as a late dagger via a Dane Pineau handoff.
They were difficult attempts for good shooters, let alone someone who has been a reluctant outside shooter for most of his career. It was a somewhat unexpected source of points, but just what was needed for South East Melbourne with Tai Wesley injured and John Roberson in and out with foul trouble.
Melbourne United were down two of their first preferences for matching up with Creek’s physicality, in Casey Prather and David Barlow, and he took advantage and showed what it’s like to lock in on every possession, something United struggled with.
“Just be solid and keep it simple,” Creek explained to his teammates.
“I thought we were tremendously gritty,” reflected Phoenix head coach Simon Mitchell.
The opening move of the game certainly signalled that gritty intent with Dane Pineau again in the starting group as an offensive rebounder and defensive specialist who would be tasked with banging with Shawn Long.
Pineau did enough and battled manfully in the first half, before he was understandably overwhelmed physically late in the game.
Long would finish with 26 points, the vast majority of them coming via post-up or put-back situations where he used his strength and athleticism advantages.
Vickerman had emphasised the desire to control the defensive glass when speaking to the media on Wednesday, and it was a lack of that, along with turnovers and struggles in guarding ball-screen action, that established a meaningful deficit.
“I thought Long’s second half was much better,” explained Vickerman.
“He has the ability to just float a little bit at times, so maintaining his focus is something that we have to get better at as a coaching staff and group to make sure he’s locked into every possession.
“He was a beast down the stretch when we went to him late, and I thought he was a monster on the glass in that period as well, but he can be better.”
It was an even more difficult United debut for Melo Trimble as the creative and shot-making guard appeared out of control and downright sloppy at times with simple first half turnovers when operating out of the pick and roll.
Trimble played in his typical loose manner, perhaps forcing difficult isolation or pick and roll drives more than needed, and he struggled at times defensively.
“Both [Trimble and Long] didn’t come from winning programs last year and there’s some things in their game that they have to get better at,” said Vickerman.
“We’ve got to continue to teach, and to teach a lot more.”
Trimble and Chris Goulding found opportunities in transition, but in the half-court it was inconsistent results through the first three quarters with the ball not zipping around and Trimble going an uncharacteristic 0-7 on three-point attempts overall.
“We made so many errors about how we just spaced the floor to get started, and that disrupted a lot of our offense, and then it just looked very unorganised,” said Vickerman.
This was in contrast to his comments Wednesday where there was optimism that, even with missing pieces, they were confident in things being interchangeable due to their less structure and more pace and space game style.
What was a positive and on display offensively though was the gravity that Trimble and Long will have with the defensive attention they command. Goulding was a beneficiary of this as he found himself in great situations with ample room to fire up triples.
The late game United rotation featured four guards surrounding Long, who pummelled the Phoenix inside, as Melbourne frantically tried to up their intensity and apply pressure defense to generate easy offense.
It was all too late though as they needed to be perfect down the stretch to cut into the margin and secure a lead.
“We made some game errors, mental errors, that could’ve given us a chance to win as well,” said Vickerman. “We haven’t been in a lot of close games so far in the preseason and haven’t done enough scenario work.”
South East Melbourne were equally unhappy with their late game execution, something to be expected in a season opener.
“We weren’t the most composed team down the stretch, but I thought we played our asses off,” said Simon Mitchell. “In a short time these guys have been able to establish a real pride in their uniform and what we’re doing in the South East.”
Without the “bread and butter option” of Tai Wesley in the low block –as Mitchell put it– it was Creek and his team that won the effort category and imposed their will on the game for longer.
Of course, there was also John Roberson. The Phoenix’s star guard is the class of this team and an all-world type shooter.
His 20 points came exclusively off pick and roll or hand-off situations, something he made look easy and a part of his game that came as no surprise given his reputation and preseason play.
The Phoenix now sit one win further along than most projections would have had them but they also appear to have a decision to make on their third import in Keith Benson.
Again, he played limited minutes off the bench and looked below par athletically for what this roster needs to really give it enough to jump into the playoffs. There’s an upgrade to be made there.