R15 Preview: SE Melbourne Phoenix vs Melbourne United

When: 3pm (AEDT), Sunday 13 March, 2022

John Cain Arena, Melbourne

ESPN; Kayo; 10 Peach; 10 Play; Sky Sports NZ

Who won the last time?
Melbourne 94
(Lual-Acuil 30, Goulding 15, Hukporti 11) d South East Melbourne 87 (Creek 23, Ashley 13, Le’afa 13, Qi 13) – Round 12, John Cain Arena, Melbourne

In another extraordinary Throwdown, Jo Lual-Acuil caught fire early and Melbourne streaked 14 ahead in the first term. They still held that advantage approaching half-time until Mitch Creek took over, scoring 11 points in a remarkable 27-2 run in seven minutes surrounding the break. United steadied thanks to Ariel Hukporti, setting up a grandstand finish where 17 final-quarter points from JLA and CG43 proved the difference.

What happened last start?

The difference makers were in Perth uniforms on Thursday, United outscored 28-18 in the final eight minutes. Vic Law, Mitch Norton and Bryce Cotton made a mockery of Melbourne’s vaunted D, killing them with penetration via the post, pass and dribble. With Goulding and Lual-Acuil shooting a combined 1/14 from deep, the champs couldn’t keep up.

South East Melbourne had the Hawks where they wanted them in Round 14, leading by 10 in the shadows of three-quarter-time but their offence came to a grinding halt, directionless under Illawarra’s pressure, they managed just six points in the next eight minutes. With Simon Mitchell shortening the rotation, the Phoenix looked lethargic late in the game.

Who’s in form?

Ariel Hukporti – The behemoth German Next Star has now produced five-straight outings in double-figures, averaging 12.4ppg at 59 per cent in just 16 minutes per game. His ability to face-up and connect from mid-range was crucial in the third quarter of the last Throwdown, scoring six points in less than three minutes to pull his team back from an eight-point deficit.

Mitch Creek – It doesn’t seem to matter what opposition teams throw at Creek, he’s still piling the points in, his past three games producing 23.0ppg at 56 per cent and 3.7apg, rediscovering his outside stroke by hitting 6/14 in the past two. However, when South East Melbourne have needed a hero he’s been starved of supply, and needs demand the ball more in crunch time.

Who needs to be?

Jack White – There’s no better power forward defender than White, and he must have been frustrated watching Vic Law run up 20 points and 18 rebounds on Thursday. While White’s individual defence was solid, he had just five d-boards to Law’s four o-boards. In the last Throwdown, Creek had 23 points at 57 per cent, but Jack tracked down a crucial 14 caroms.

Xavier Munford – No team shuts down ball movement better than Melbourne. In the last Throwdown, they denied South East Melbourne’s scorers and forced Kyle Adnam and Izayah Le’afa to be the shooters, but the Phoenix need Munford – whose past three games have delivered 8.7ppg on just 8.3 shot attempts – to be the one breaking that pressure with penetration.

Who’s statting up?

 - Last Throwdown, Le’afa was South East Melbourne’s leading shot-taker with 16 attempts. The Phoenix are 1-5 when Le’afa has double-figure field-goal attempts, compared to 8-1 when he has fewer

 - During Illawarra’s match-winning nine-minute run, the Phoenix created just two shot attempts for Creek. During United’s match-winning nine-minute run, Creek got just four attempts. He shot a combined 4/6 in those stretches, while his teammates hit 7/25

 - In the first Throwdown, South East Melbourne were +6 with Zhou Qi on the floor in an eight-point win. In the rematch, they were -16 with their centre playing in a seven-point loss. Jo Lual-Acuil is +14 across the two games, eight better than any other United player

 - Lual-Acuil went 3/3 from long range in the Round 12 Throwdown. In 10 games surrounding that clash he has hit 5/23

Who’s matching up?

Zhou Qi v Jo Lual-Acuil – In the first Throwdown big Zhou was the difference, but it was a different big Jo the second time around. With Qi in drops defence, JLA went 3/3 from deep, then powered his way inside, going 8/10 to score 30 game-changing points. His block on a Qi dunk and bully ball jam on his counterpart’s head were two enormous statement plays.

The Phoenix star looked shell-shocked, his 13 points, nine rebounds, five o-boards and four blocks nullified by his inability to find a defensive solution. When he sagged, JLA hit from outside, when he showed, Lual-Acuil either scored on the roll or South East Melbourne were forced into rotations. If Lual-Acuil isn’t hitting from outside, however, it’s a different story on Sunday.

Who’s talking the talk?

Jo Lual-Acuil got all the headlines from the last Throwdown, his 30 points at 84 per cent, perfect from deep, nine rebounds and three blocks a statline to behold.

His blocks, power jams, deft hooks and ball-handling skills at 213cm were even more impressive than the boxscore.

“Jo was exceptional all night,” coach Dean Vickerman said.

“To see him go 3/3 from the three-point line and attack the rim the way he did tonight, in single coverage he was just able to get by people and get to the rim.”

Yet while JLA was the star, someone else was also driving the United machine, albeit with less fanfare.

After a disappointing opening Throwdown, Shea Ili came out with a point to prove in the rematch, finishing with eight points, eight assists, three steals and a game-high +8.

His penetration was too much for the Phoenix defence to handle, especially when they had one eye on Lual-Acuil.

United scored 67 points in Ili’s 26:42 at 100.4 points per 40 minutes, compared to 27 points in the remaining time at 81.2 per 40 minutes.

“It came out of a structure with Jo and Shili in an on-ball that we thought could create an advantage,” Vickerman said.

“It’s good that we can create an early advantage and attack it straight away or let the basketball shift, and that’s what we saw, the basketball move and we had an advantage on the other side.

“That’s something we've been working on, how we pass the basketball, and it was pleasing to have 21 assists tonight and share it, you’re pretty hard to scout if you have multiple people really sharing the basketball well.”

In contrast, the Phoenix have been having trouble getting the ball to the right spots in important moments.

“I thought our decision making, particularly at the point guard position was really poor in the fourth quarter,” coach Mitchell said after his team’s narrow win in Adelaide.

“We seem to be getting to these stretches where we have a nine, 10, 11, 12, 13-point lead and then all of a sudden our decision making can get poor.

“We've got to be more ruthless, a little bit more circumspect in saying where are we being successful, why aren't we continuing to go to that?”

The ailment repeated in the loss to Illawarra, and while Mitchell may have again be disappointed with his guards, he would be looking squarely in the mirror too.

After his team led by 10 shortly before the last break, the Phoenix offence dried up and almost completely excluded Mitch Creek.

After dominating early, the Phoenix superstar had just one shot attempt in the first seven minutes of the final term as his team fell 13 behind.

While Illawarra did a good job of shutting down ball movement, Mitchell and Co faced the same challenge against Melbourne three weeks earlier, and second time around were far too slow to react and simplify their sets to get their best player involved.

In Round 12, United held South East Melbourne on one side of the floor and forced Kyle Adnam and Izayah Le’afa to beat them while the likes of Ryan Broekhoff were iced from the game.

You can bet they’ll bring the same strategy to see if Mitchell has solved that problem in the past week.

“They locked the ball, particularly early in the game, locked that ball on one side and we were failing to get the ball from side to side,” Mitchell said.

“We brought (Broekhoff) into some plays but they did a great job top-blocking him and obviously really a concerted effort to close him down.

“The opportunities didn’t come for him tonight and we've got to go back and find better ways to get him involved …

“Credit to Melbourne the way they lifted the defensive intensity down the last five minutes, I thought they were excellent and it’s a good reminder for us where we need to get to.”


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