R21 Preview: Perth Wildcats vs SE Melbourne Phoenix

When: 5.30pm (AEDT), Sunday 24 April 2022

Where: RAC Arena, Perth

Broadcast: ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sport NZ


Who won last time?

South East Melbourne 86 (Adnam 24, Creek 22, Le'afa 12) d Perth 80 (Law 22, Cotton 15, Hodgson 10, Frazier 10) - Round 13, John Cain Arena, Melbourne

The Phoenix started well in the previous meeting at home to the Wildcats but were overwhelmed in the finish losing by 22 and conceding 101 points. But this time, it was Izayah Le'afa who had a monstrous first half for the Phoenix not only scoring nine points himself, but holding three-time MVP Bryce Cotton scoreless on 0/5 shooting.

That helped the Phoenix to a 14-point advantage at half-time but it only took Cotton less than four minutes to cap a Perth 10-0 run early in the third term for him to help the Wildcats back into the contest. Cotton helped inspire the 'Cats to tie scores up with a minute and-a-half remaining too after he scored a couple of baskets and then found Todd Blanchfield for the corner three. 

But Perth couldn’t find a three down the stretch and it was Phoenix captain Kyle Adnam who closed the door on them with four huge free-throws on the back of a massive three minutes earlier and scoring 16 of his 24 points for the game in the second half.

It was that back court of Adnam along with Le'afa who finished with 12 points and four assists who were instrumental in the win while Mitch Creek (22 points, four rebounds) had a cracking power forward battle with Vic Law (22 points, nine boards).

It was a third successive loss for the Wildcats with Cotton finishing with 15 points all in the second half to go with five assists. Matt Hodgson had 10 points and seven rebounds before fouling out after playing just 16 minutes and Michael Frazier showed better signs with 10 points.


What happened last start?

The South East Melbourne Phoenix will be disappointed to not be a chance of reaching playoffs but would love nothing more than to now be responsible for stopping the Perth Wildcats reaching a 36th straight finals campaign in the NBL.

If you fast forward to when these two teams last met almost two months ago and second spot was on the line. How things have changed since. South East Melbourne has only won four of 12 games since that home win over the Wildcats to have fallen from finals contention.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, did go on a six-game winning streak directly after that loss to the Phoenix but now have lost five of their past seven matches at RAC Arena and find themselves in the remarkable position of needing to win on Sunday or their season is over, and their incredible consecutive finals streak in the NBL will end at 35.

The stage was set for what Sunday's game means on Friday night when the two teams both were in action. The Phoenix closed their season at home with a terrific come from behind win against the Adelaide 36ers.

The Wildcats fought valiantly, but without Vic Law didn’t have enough to overcome the Illawarra Hawks meaning everything comes down to them winning or not on Sunday in front of the Red Army in the final game of the regular season.

How fitting. The most remarkable of playoff streaks will now either end or continue with all eyes on the very last game of the season on Sunday at RAC Arena.

The Phoenix might not be in contention to take part in finals, but what a way to end on a high than being the team responsible for ending the streak.

South East Melbourne comes in on the back of coming back from trailing the 36ers by 17 points on Friday night to put up 34 points in the fourth quarter to win 94-91.

Cam Gliddon put up 24 points on 6/11 shooting from downtown for the Phoenix with Xavier Munford adding 14 points and seven assists, Brandon Ashley 14 points and 11 rebounds, Zhou Qi 12 points and seven boards, and Mitch Creek 11 points and six rebounds.

The Wildcats got their first taste of life without Vic Law who is done for the season with an ankle injury on Friday night. While it was an improved showing for the 'Cats, they lost 82-77 to the Hawks despite 25 points from Bryce Cotton, 16 points and 10 rebounds from Majok Majok, and 11 points from Michael Frazier.


Who’s in form?

Majok Majok – Having almost missed two full years in the NBL through injury after a mixed run for a couple of years after winning a championship at Melbourne United, he has had a bit of an up and down season with the Wildcats. He had an up night on Friday, though, where he stepped up big time against the Illawarra Hawks playing only 19 minutes but delivering 16 points and 10 rebounds in that time on 8/9 shooting. He now needs to step up again on Sunday matched up with Zhou Qi, Brandon Ashley and perhaps at times, even Mitch Creek.

Brandon Ashley – The Phoenix needed to find a spark at home to the Adelaide 36ers on Friday night when they fell down by as much as 17 and it was 'Bash' who was a catalyst to sparking their fightback and eventual three-point victory. He hasn’t quite had the impact he or the Phoenix might have hoped since arriving and a lot of that has been just down to not being able to build momentum on the floor through foul trouble. However, he has shown he can be a standout big in this league and had 14 points and 11 rebounds in just over 22 minutes on Friday. He is another potential match up nightmare for the Wildcats on Sunday.


Who needs to be?

Mitch Norton – It was no coincidence that the Wildcats started racking up some losses and didn’t have their same bite defensively, or their same crisply run offence when he was out with a hamstring injury. He still appears to somewhat be on a minutes restriction because he played less than 28 minutes on Friday night against Tyler Harvey and the Illawarra Hawks, but he was still effective with six points and eight assists. The Wildcats can't afford to have him on any minutes restriction on Sunday. He needs to be let off the chain to lead the defensive intensity and execution, and he needs to run the offence to get good looks for his teammates, and if that happens, he could be largely responsible for keeping the streak alive.

Mitch Creek – Quite simply, Creek has the potential of being a dominant presence on Sunday and could be the man largely responsible for ending the Perth Wildcats finals streak. He's got a fascinating history with the Wildcats dating back to his time at the Adelaide 36ers and now with the Phoenix, and he could be in for a big game to finish the season that should see him named to the All-First NBL Team. He didn’t have a great night on Friday with 11 points on 3/13 shooting, but overall this season he has been brilliant with 20.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game. Another big game from him on Sunday and South East Melbourne is going to be tough to stop for Perth.


Who’s statting up?

 - The last time the Wildcats needed to win their last game of the season to reach the playoffs was 2017 where Casey Prather inspired them to the win over Melbourne United before they went on to win the championship in Bryce Cotton's first season
 - The last time Perth didn’t take part in the finals was 1986 and on that occasion they closed the regular season with a 36-point loss to the Canberra Cannons on the way to finishing with an 8-18 record

 - The Phoenix are fresh off their greatest ever comeback victory coming from 17 points down to beat the Adelaide 36ers on Friday night


Who’s matching up?

Mitch Creek v ??? – This could be a nightmare match up for the Wildcats without Vic Law. That frontcourt has been an area where they haven’t quite had the depth they might have liked all season long and that's exactly why they attempted to bring in John Brown III late in the piece. And that was with Law in the line-up. A Law v Creek match up is main event on the marquee in the NBL and they could very well both be in the All-First NBL Team. But now who the Wildcats put to Creek is a dilemma with no easy or obvious answer, but it could end up being huge in deciding if Perth reaches a 36th consecutive finals series or not. Do they go big on Creek with Matt Hodgson or Majok Majok? That seems fraught with danger. Do they go a little undersized with Todd Blanchfield or Luke Travers and risk Creek bullying them? Do they trust their captain Jesse Wagstaff with the job? Or could they even throw the challenge to Michael Frazier? The reality might be that they try all those options at different points of Sunday's game and it's going to be fascinating to watch.


Who’s talking the talk?

Wildcats coach Scott Morrison saw better signs from his team on Friday night against the Hawks and hopes that can translate into a win on Sunday.

"I think we saw that our game plan is good. It doesn’t mean that's easy to execute or to stop a good team like that, but we just had to do a bit better job on the glass and keep trying to make every basket tough. I don’t want to speak for them, but that was our best defensive half of the year in that second half. We just have to bring it on Sunday," Morrison said.

"A wise coach once said that moral victories are for losers but with that said, if we can build on this effort and get the job done on Sunday, then I will definitely take it as a big positive the improvements that we've had. 

"I know we're capable, I believe in the guys in there and they need to believe in themselves. They showed tonight they are capable of taking it to another notch with both our effort and defence. We are owed a couple of shots to fall now so if we can do that, I like our chances to at least be in the game down the stretch and then see what happens."

It's fair to say Morrison has had a prickly relationship with the media in recent times, particularly those at The West Australian. Streak or no streak, Morrison has faith his Wildcats team will give their all on Sunday.

"I'll probably just talk about the streak a lot. It was a joke and I want to make sure I say that because you might write about how I'm worried about the streak or not caring about the streak," Morrison said.

"The message is always the same and we want to win every game. Everyone knows what needs to happen for us to keep playing, everyone wants to keep playing and everyone's going to empty their tank and give everything that have on Sunday."

Wildcats centre Majok Majok is coming off 16 points and 10 rebounds on Friday night against the Hawks, and was happy with the improved rebounding performance.

"Obviously with every game our mindset is to try and rebound the ball, and at the end of the day we have to finish our plays by rebounding the ball," Majok said. 

"Obviously tonight we fell short of the win but everybody laid everything out there and we just have to make sure we come back and do it again on Sunday."

It hasn’t been the finish to the season anyone at the Phoenix were hoping for. For much of NBL22 they were fighting for a top two position and appeared just about a finals lock, but that's now not the case and Sunday will see their season come to an end.

However, coach Simon Mitchell was proud of their fightback on Friday night to win at the home over the Adelaide 36ers even if it came a bit too late to truly matter.

"I don’t want to take away from the win and we've been starved of victories with nine-odd close losses over this six-week period where we were in position to take care of some business and we didn’t," Mitchell said.

"But you've got to do it when the chips are on the table and it was really good to win, and I'm really happy for our fans and for our playing better. But at the end of the day you've got to do when it matters most and we failed that test when it matters most over the last few weeks. 

"I'm not going to acknowledge that and say it was a line in the sand but there were positives from that and things that we'll take moving forward. I can't say it's a line in the sand for us though."

Cam Gliddon grew up in Western Australia and has spent his entire NBL career with the Taipans, Bullets and Phoenix battling the Wildcats so he's as aware as anyone about what Sunday's game means.

But ultimately, the 283-game veteran just wants to finish his season on good note after 24 points and six threes on Friday night before worrying about his future, and hopes his team finishes off with a win irrespective of what that means for the Wildcats.

"I've tried my best to stay positive and make sure I'm competing at training, and getting better every day. I think I've had some good training sessions and strung together some good sessions, and then on the weekend it just hasn’t come to fruition," Gliddon said. 

"I'm happy that I got to have a nice game, but I'm way happier that we got the win. When we started off this season and we were winning and you don’t take it for granted, but when it goes away it's tough on your mental side of things and the group. 

"So just a win no matter if it's playoffs out of the picture, it feels good. I think I've been training well and am in good rhythm, and this off-season I'm a free agent. I think I've got a lot to offer but that will happen when it happens. 

"Right now I'm just focused on the Perth game and finishing off right. That's my hometown so I want to get a win over there in front of some family, and it would be a lot more positive to finish the season on a win than a loss."

While the Phoenix would obviously rather be playing for their own playoff lives on Sunday in Perth, but for coach Mitchell, ending the finals streak of the Wildcats would be something nobody on the team would ever forget.

"They've been in a little bit of a similar boat to us and it's been rough on them," Mitchell said.

"They had that real long trip away from home and I think the expectation from people is that you just go back home, and start winning. That's not how this league works. These COVID seasons have been exceptionally unusual and the challenges that they throw at everybody has affected everybody in different ways. 

"They've had it tough since they got home and they obviously need to win to solidify their playoff position, but that will be a challenge to try and take that away from them. That would be fantastic for us to be responsible for ending that streak."


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