R16 Preview: SE Melbourne Phoenix vs Sydney Kings

When: 8pm (AEDT), Saturday 19 March 2022

John Cain Arena, Melbourne

ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sports NZ

Who won the last time?
Sydney 92
(Cooks 23, Martin 20, Adams 14, Vasiljevic 14) d SE Melbourne 87 (Broekhoff 25, Creek 23, Barker 14) – Round 11, John Cain Arena, Melbourne

The Phoenix made plenty of runs in this one, but the Kings had all the answers, and they usually came from the dynamic frontcourt duo of Xavier Cooks and Jarell Martin, who combined for 43 points at 64 per cent. At the other end, SEM couldn’t consistently crack the code, only a huge offensive rebounding performance keeping them in the game until late.

What happened last start?

It was a case of no Cooks, no worries for Chase Buford’s crew as they dominated the Taipans for 35 minutes before cruising home. The Kings did struggle to score on the interior with their X-factor sidelined, and will be without Cooks and Shaun Bruce on Saturday. Now on a seven-game streak, a win will have Sydney within 0.5 games of Perth in second place.  

A Phoenix loss could leave them 1.5 games and percentage outside the four if Illawarra beat Tassie. SE Melbourne are on a three-game skid after trailing the Hawks all night, following home losses where they had Illawarra and Melbourne all-but beat only to choke late. Simon Mitchell’s men fixed their offensive issues, but the D continues to be a serious concern.

Who’s in form?

Zhou Qi – Mitch Creek wanted his team to feed the beast and they listened, going to their lengthy centre over and again and receiving 25 points at 78 per cent in return. The Phoenix scored 66 points at 62 per cent in Qi’s 25 minutes, but shot just 43 per cent the rest of the way. With Cooks watching on, the stage is set for another ‘Zhou show’ on Saturday night.

Jaylen Adams – Another man putting on a regular show is Adams, who torched Cairns for 24 points and 7 assists, his past four games delivering 25.5ppg at 54 per cent and 6.5 dimes. After appearing rushed early in his NBL career, the game has slowed for Adams, who is calmly picking apart pick-and-roll coverages, an area SE Melbourne are struggling to defend.

Who needs to be?

Brandon Ashley – The Phoenix give up 12.7ppg to the roll-out, the most in the league. Sydney will put Qi in one action after another, and while he’ll give up points, he’ll create them at the other end. Can Ashley force the ball out of Adams’ hands without committing cheap fouls? He’s picked up 12 whistles in 39 minutes across the past three games.

Makur Maker – After three months out, Sydney’s exciting Next Star returned in back-to-back clashes with Cairns, and while he managed just 8 points on 1/9 shooting in two games, he grabbed 17 rebounds and 5 o-boards in 28 minutes while playing some quality interior defence. Things go up a level on Saturday as he tries to defend the red-hot Qi.

Who’s statting up?

 - Leading into last round, the Kings ranked first in defensive rebounding percentage (77%) and second in opposition o-boards (8.7). Against Cairns without Cooks, they gave up 14 o-boards, pulling in just 69 per cent of available d-boards

 - Sydney have shot 50 per cent on two-pointers this season, with Cooks nailing 57 per cent. Against Cairns last round they shot 15/36 at 42 per cent and managed just 28 points in the paint. In two games against SEM, they’ve averaged 40 PiPs and been +26 in that category

 - The Phoenix have averaged 80ppg on 35 per cent shooting against Sydney. Against the rest of the league they are shooting 46 per cent, and no other team has kept them below 42 per cent

 - In losses this season, the SE Melbourne defence is leaking 94.4ppg. In their past two outings, they’ve given up 100.5ppg at 51 per cent. Sydney are 6-0 this season when they reach 90 points

Who’s matching up?

Mitch Creek v Jarell Martin – It’s a scary proposition for the Kings, Creek coming off a season-low 15 points and a next-to-worst 33 per cent shooting against the Hawks. His least efficient game was a 7/23 night against Sydney in Round 11, where he got just five attempts at the rim for a 4/5 return, but went 1/9 on floaters and pull-ups and 2/9 on threes.

There’s no Cooks to lead that defensive charge this time around, so expect Mitch to test Martin’s lateral quickness early and often, and don’t be surprised to see Angus Glover at the four-spot early. At the other end, Martin has shot 44 per cent from outside the past nine games, and was 3/3 last time against SEM, so he’ll be firing when Creek helps on Adams.

Who’s talking the talk?

Last time these teams met, an undermanned SE Melbourne couldn’t buy a basket, continuing a worrying trend against the Kings this season.

But Kings coach Chase Buford wasn’t all that thrilled watching his team hold the opposition to 35 per cent shooting but still give up 87 points.

“I was really displeased, disappointed in our defensive performance especially, I thought that was our worst defensive game of the year,” he said.

“They had 18 (o-boards), 17 second chance points … By percentage, defensive rebounding we've been the best team in the league and we didn’t have it tonight.

“We didn’t have it on rebounding, I don’t think our guards guarded anyone on pick-and-roll very well, our shifts and our help behind it was poor.

“If we want to be a good team, a team that can make the finals and do something, we really have to be so much better defensively no matter who else is on the floor on the other side.”

Of course, that win was the second of seven on the trot, and they’ve given up 87 points or more in four of those.

The Phoenix would take that though, having leaked 87 or more in seven of their past 11 games. While some of that has to do with the whistle aligning more closely with the rulebook in recent rounds, a large part is just bad defence, SEM giving up 103 points to Illawarra.

“It’s unacceptable. Way too many buckets for them. We really struggled to put together groups of stops tonight, we had some moments but defensively I thought we were poor,” coach Simon Mitchell said.

“We blew a lot of coverages tonight. We let guys get to their preferred positions on the floor, we let them execute far too easy, it’s a disappointing result.”

Not only have the Phoenix struggled to keep opponents in front of them or disrupt opposition sets, their reactive defence has only grabbed 61 per cent of d-boards the past two games with Ryan Broekhoff injured.

“You set yourself up for a result like that when you give up 21 o-boards,” Mitchell said.

“It’s just not good enough. People are going to say Rowdy not being there tonight, he’s our premier defensive rebounding, I'm sure there’s a factor there, but I feel like technique and desire was also lacking a little bit on those boards.”

Sydney had been winning games on the back of their offence recently, but entered Cairns without their defensive and rebounding rock in Xavier Cooks and made a statement, led by precocious rookie Makur Maker and hard nut Angus Glover.

“Our defence was terrific throughout the night, after 35 minutes they had 62 points so that’s pretty darned good,” Buford said.

“The last time we played without X was the second half of the Brissy game after they ejected him and we gave up 61 points (in the half), so I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t have a little anxiety leading into the game bout how we were going to guard and come out and defend.

“(Maker) was terrific, I think he set the tone, protecting the rim and rebounding right from the get-go, I think he made Zimmerman’s life really tough.”

His role against Zhou Qi will be critical, if he can play the Chinese national team star one-on-one – which Jo Lual-Acuil and Sam Froling haven't been able to do in recent games – it allows the Sydney defence to stay at home.

For the Phoenix, how they deal with Jaylen Adams off ball-screens is going to be critical, especially if the Kings’ star is nailing his pull-up.

The signs against Illawarra weren’t promising, with the Hawks punishing SE Melbourne’s ball-screen D, and exploiting their extended pressure designed to push them out of those sets.

“Our recovery out of hard shows was not up to the standard we have probably shown, then finishing off plays on the o-boards. Giving up 21 extra shots to your opponent you're going to hurt yourself, you're going to tax yourself of energy and make your defence look worse than it actually was,” coach Mitchell said.

“We’re in a bit of a hole. That’s three losses in a row, four games I think we've been relatively poor in for significant moments and we need to find answers.”


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