R1 Preview: SE Melbourne Phoenix vs NZ Breakers

When: 8pm (AEDT), Saturday 4 December

John Cain Arena, Melbourne

ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sports NZ

Who won the last time?
South East Melbourne 83
(Sykes 29, Moore 11, Te Rangi 10) def New Zealand Breakers 78 (T Webster 26, Delany 18, Iverson 10) - Round 21, 2021, Trusts Arena, Auckland

After an even first quarter in last season’s final round, the Phoenix dominated the second term behind the brilliance of Keifer Sykes, establishing a match-winning edge that remained in double figures for much of the second half, before a Tai Webster-inspired surge got the Breakers within four late.

In this year’s Blitz, the Breakers prevailed in a high-quality thriller where Frenchmen Hugo Besson and Ousmane Dieng announced their arrival in the NBL with 42 points between them, while new import Xavier Munford splashed 20 for South East Melbourne.

Who’s new?

Munford leads an exciting new international brigade for the Phoenix alongside powerful forward Devin Thomas and superstar Chinese centre Zhou Qi, who proved a roadblock on the interior during the pre-season once he adjusted to the unique way the NBL is officiated. Coach Simon Mitchell has kept most of his key local pieces in place from last year’s semi-final run, but will love having Dane Pineau and Ryan Broekhoff fully fit and firing.

There has been significant upheaval in New Zealand with Besson, Dieng, Peyton Siva and Jeremiah Martin arriving from abroad, Yanni Wetzell returning from Australia and the Webster brothers no longer in the line-up. What’s not new is interruptions, bad luck continuing to follow the Breakers with captain Tom Abercrombie on the injury list, coach Dan Shamir sidelined due to COVID and an unnamed starter in doubt for the season opener.

Who’s in form?

Jeremiah Martin – The untimely COVID interruption meant the Kiwis played just three games at the Blitz, but two close wins over Sydney and South East Melbourne and a tight loss to United suggests they are better prepared than the past two seasons. Martin was the find of the tournament, averaging 21ppg, 4.5apg and 4spg across his two games, the Breakers going +34 with the former Brooklyn Nets guard on the floor and -32 with him benched.

Ryan Broekhoff – The former Maverick went 0/3 against the Breakers in pre-season, but in three other Blitz games nailed 13/26 from beyond the arc and put on a clinic against Melbourne to confirm he is B.A.C.K. The Phoenix were +16 with the Frankston product on the floor, compared to -14 with him on the bench in the Blitz, his ability to shift the defence without touching the ball, and provide quality team defence himself, invaluable.

Who needs to be?

Xavier Munford – The Breakers bat deep in the backcourt, with Siva and Martin having the potential to be the NBL’s best backcourt, and Will McDowell-White and Besson as good as any guard tandem coming off the bench. While Kyle Adnam will bring his outstanding savvy, Izayah Le’afa will bring intensity and Cam Gliddon high IQ marksmanship, when it comes to star power and x-factor the Phoenix need Munford making things happen. Of the 20 points he dropped on New Zealand during the Blitz, 15 came from the paint or the free-throw line.

Yanni Wetzell – This is a huge game for Yanni as he debuts for New Zealand against his former team. Coach Shamir’s system relies on countless picks to open up driving lanes and shooters, and last season Colton Iverson was the NBL’s official supplier of moving screens, but Wetzell is a different type of player who offers much more at the offensive end than his predecessor. He averaged 16.5ppg, 8.5rpg and 2.5bpg at the Blitz, the sort of numbers Shamir will be looking for provided the Kiwi can set good picks and defend them at the other end.

Who’s statting up?

 - The Breakers lost points in the paint 72-112 against Melbourne and Sydney in pre-season, but levelled 50-apiece with the Phoenix thanks for 40 points inside from Besson, Dieng and Wetzell

 - New Zealand averaged 17 assists to 13 turnovers in the Blitz, while limiting their opponents 15 dimes and 17.3 miscues

 - In their inaugural season the Phoenix gave up 98.6ppg at 49 per cent, both bottom two. Last season they reduced that to 86.7ppg at 47 per cent. In the Blitz they gave up 92.5ppg but allowed just 43 per cent from the field

 - In their inaugural season the Phoenix gave up 10.6 triples per game, second most in the league. Last season they reduced that to 8.4, the second fewest. In the Blitz they allowed 11.8 trifectas per night

Who’s matching up?

Mitch Creek v Finn Delany – This shapes as one of the great rivalries of #NBL22, two of the game’s hardest-working, most athletic and versatile forwards who play with an insatiable appetite for Ws. Creek had just 17 points combined in the pair’s final two meetings of last season, while Delany monstered his way to 50 as he announced his arrival as a star.

Finn tasted defeat in both match-ups, however as Creek, and the Phoenix marched to the playoffs, while the Breakers tuned in on Sky Sports. At this year’s Blitz, Creek took the individual honours with 18 points on 8/11 shooting and +19, but it was Delany who called game in the most unorthodox and effective fashion. Bring this battle on!

Who’s talking the talk?

When Australian Boomers star Ryan Broekhoff entered the league midway through last season, it’s fair to say there were high expectations.

It’s also fair to say he didn’t go anywhere near meeting them, and while there were good reasons for that, the 31-year-old wanted to rectify that situation immediately.

“At the end of the season we had our exit interviews and one of the things Rowdy said was he wasn’t going to pursue the Boomers invitation,” coach Simon Mitchell said.

“He had some personal issues he had to deal with, he also had some physical issues on arrival that we needed to get through, and he just kept getting setbacks.

“We never really got a good run with him.”

Phoenix fans only had to watch a few short moments of the Blitz to know it is a very different Broekhoff in green this season after a mountain of unseen work behind closed doors.

“He wanted to free his mind up and get himself physically in a position where he can play at a (high) level and perform tasks that maybe weren’t required of him in the NBA, his role there was really catch-and-shoot and keep the defence honest,” Mitchell said.

“With us he’s more of a vocal point so he had to go an re-engage some skill sets that maybe he hadn’t touched upon for a couple of years, and he did the work and we really saw it early.

“His movement, his athletic ability, his agility, and the shooting’s always going to be there, so we're seeing the complete package of Ryan Broekhoff back into the mix.”

A refreshed Broekhoff and the remarkable Zhou Qi effectively give South East Melbourne two NBA-level recruits to help build on last season’s playoff debut.

In the short term, Qi’s availability for Round 1 is important given import big Devin Thomas has been ruled out, and the Phoenix are giving their Chinese superstar every chance to prove he is ready after a minor injury representing his country in Japan last week.

“His ankle’s ok, it was a slight sprain, he’ll be good to go, it’s just working around this 72-hour quarantine he’s in,” Mitchell said.

Qi’s presence is set to be one of the storylines of NBL22.

“I feel like he’s a real special athlete, 7’2 with a 7’6 wingspan, and just a beautiful mover around the floor,” Mitchell said.

“Very agile, really high IQ player, his decision making’s superb, defensively he brings that rim protection, offensively he’s a great passer, good rebounder and he can score in a multitude of ways.

“He can shoot the three-ball, he’s got great touch around the rim with both hands, he’s got a little bit of back to the basket game, he’s a really special player.

“He’s something we’ve never seen before at this level in the NBL.”

The Breakers have done alright on the recruiting front too, with an ex-NBA backcourt in Siva and Martin, and a future pair of French NBAers in Besson and Dieng.

While COVID has disrupted the lead-up, after “a two-week stretch where we’d made really good strides”, star Kiwi Finn Delany feels his team has the talent to beat even the most stacked NBL rosters.

“Any time we step on the floor I believe we can win games,” he said.

“The season hasn’t even started yet and I feel like we’re in the belly of the beast at the moment which I actually enjoy. It’s a good mentality – that underdog, fighting-type spirit. We have the group to have something like this thrown in our faces and come out the better for it.”

They’ll have to do it without coach Shamir on Saturday night, but his replacement Mody Maor said the team is used to dealing with the unexpected after last year’s tumultuous season.

“It’s different than how you would like to prepare for your first game,” he said.

“We were all quarantined for a few days, so we lost a little bit of our fitness and a little bit of our game shape. We also missed a game that was very important for us in a troubled pre-season already.

“But we have a great group of guys who came in and did the work and we feel confident. There is a feeling of déjà vu, but we have all learned from our challenges. This is a tough group and I think this time we have a better chance of overcoming them.”


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