R14 Preview: Sydney Kings vs SE Melbourne Phoenix

When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Thursday 15 April

Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney

ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand; Twitch

The last time
SE Melbourne 98 (Creek 26, Moore 20, Gliddon 12) d Sydney 84 (Martin 23, Ware 20, Bruce 11, Hunter 11), Round 13, Qudos Bank Arena

These teams have a habit of producing quality clashes and while last round’s was no exception, the Phoenix controlled most of it after a slow start, and then pulled away late to cap an efficient performance. A Casper Ware triple had Sydney within five with 3:30 to play, but trifectas from Kyle Adnam and Cam Gliddon put the result beyond doubt. Earlier it was Mitch Creek giving Sydney troubles with 20 of his 26 points in the first half, while the roll-outs of Ben Moore and Yanni Wetzell were something the Kings never came to grips with.

The now
That was SE Melbourne’s first win over Sydney, following three defeats by six or less in the teams’ first five meetings. If they can repeat that in the return bout, they’ll move four games ahead of the Kings with 13 left to play, which would mean one small Phoenix foot inside the playoff door. If they replicate their execution and stingy ball security from last Sunday, and clean up their work on the defensive boards, few would bet against them.

Whatever Sydney did to upset the hoop gods it worked, losing Xavier Cooks, Jarell Martin, Angus Glover, Daniel Kickert, Didi Louzada and now DJ Vasiljevic for notable stretches of the season. That goes a long way to explaining their lack of consistency at both ends of the floor as they try to lock in an identity under new coach Adam Forde. Their next four games are against the Phoenix, Cairns and Illawarra, and while four Ws likely put them back in the top four, three or more defeats could leave them needing a blistering run to the post-season.

The stats

 - Sydney’s roller-coaster has seen scores of 69, 119, 103, 75, 65, 89, 90, 69 and 84 in their past nine games

 - The defence has been no different, allowing 89, 108, 75, 73, 89, 95, 71, 73 and 98 in the past nine outings

 - Last Sunday, the Phoenix coughed up just 4 turnovers in 40 minutes and won points off turnovers 16-7

 - SE Melbourne leaked 16 o-boards to the Kings, however, while grabbing just 8 of their own, losing second chance points 18-4 in the process

The key men

Mitch Creek – The Kings simply had no answer for Creek last round, particularly in the first half. He nailed 4-of-7 from distance, pulling up with confidence in transition, but when the defence got up, Mitch Creek got his feet in the paint and his nose on the rim, drawing 10 fouls and landing 8-of-10 from the stripe.

It’s a tough defensive balance, give too much attention to Adnam and Keifer Sykes in on-balls and hand-offs and Creek gets free, not enough and the point guards are in the lane drawing defence and setting up three-point shooters. After being beaten by speed on Sunday, Sydney must sure up their d-trans and get bodies into help positions.

Casper Ware – In the Kings’ past three losses, Ware has averaged 22.3 points and 1.7 assists. In their past six wins, he’s produced 15.8ppg and 6.3apg, while taking just 5.4 three-point attempts per night. Last Sunday against SE Melbourne, Casper he racked up 20 points but didn’t dish a dime and coughed it up four times.

There is always the challenge of taking what the defence gives, but Sydney need Ware shifting the D and finding teammates, as without Vasiljevic the roster lacks players who can create for themselves and others. In the Round 8 win over the Phoenix, Ware added 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, and the Kings scored 56 points in the paint.

The quotes

At the start of this season, if someone had said the Kings would be reliant on DJ Vasiljevic to lead their offence, few would have believed it.

But such has been the impact of the precocious rookie that coach Adam Forde is imploring his players to channel DJ’s lack of conscience as the 23-year-old starts the long road back from his Achilles injury.

“One thing that DJ was good at, was even if you didn’t run him something, the defence was conscious of where he was,” Forde said after his side’s loss to SE Melbourne.

“Probably the last three games, we've been hesitant to shoot it ... when it comes off the pass, especially when we drive and the defence collapses in and we kick it back out, I don’t care who it is I want you to take confidence in shooting that shot.

“We turned that down today, the defence collapsed, we kicked it out, and then guys drove again. There was one play we turned it over on the baselines, there were three times (before that) to shoot it and no one shot it.

“I don’t care if you’ve gone 0-of-5 or you're shooting 30 per cent for the season, that’s the shot that we need to take … we need to take that shot and give it the chance to go in, because it will start to go in and the defence will adjust.”

The other thing Vasiljevic always brought was energy, and that was sadly lacking from the Kings last Sunday.

“Obviously it’s tough losing DJ, he’s played so well for us all year, we don’t want to let that get us down, he wouldn’t want us to be moping around,” centre Jordan Hunter said.

“There’s a million factors, a million excuses, but every game’s really important right now, we’re right in the middle of the pack, we can’t really have games where we’re not bringing the juice.”

SE Melbourne changed their line-up last Sunday to be smaller and quicker at both ends, and that resulted in them playing with a high intensity level.

“We went with a smaller line-up tonight to match what Sydney had on the floor,” coach Simon Mitchell said.

“I felt like with Keifer (Sykes) out there we have a like-for-like with Casper, they're both extremely good defenders and quick, I was kind of hoping between Izayah (Le’afa) and Keifer we could wear Casper down a little bit, hoping he wouldn’t be able to make the plays down the stretch.

“That might have freed Kyle up a little bit because Casper got into him a little bit last game.”

But it wasn’t just energy that got the job done for the visitors, it was smarts, learning their lesson from a lacklustre display in Wollongong.

“The importance of caring for the ball on the road, that’s probably my initial thought,” Mitchell said post-game.

“The last game against Illawarra watching it back it was really difficult watching the way we punted it around the gym, and credit to Illawarra in that one but a lot of it was also self-inflicted.

“I thought tonight the guys made a concerted effort to be careful with the ball without being a negative offensive team; still making plays but those 50-50 ones to risk-reward, we pulled out of and got a second side, a third side, our patience was really good.

“From that standpoint really happy with the team, defensively I thought we were pretty solid, we've just got to do better at keeping guys from getting offensive boards and second chance points.”

For the Kings, it’s about quickly locking onto their new offensive identity without Vasiljevic, and not letting that impact their defensive aggression so they can put an end to this inconsistent roller-coaster ride their fans are experiencing in NBL21.

“The consistency ties in with mental toughness. How much mentally tougher are we to remain focused knowing it’s changed a little bit?” Forde said.

“This is the danger. We’re in touch, but we can’t be worried about whether other teams are winning or losing, because two weeks ago we were in the driver’s seat and all we had to do was worry about us.

“We’re still in that position, but there are 14 games left, if we’re still doing this win one, lose one and then suddenly there’s four or five games left, then you are relying on other teams and we don’t want to put ourselves in that position.”


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