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Defence frustrating the efforts of SEM Phoenix

In two recent meetings against New Zealand Breakers, South East Melbourne Phoenix have proven they have the necessary weapons to put points on the board against the No. 1 ranked defence in the league.

On Thursday night, the Phoenix tallied 84 points despite horrific shooting from long range, doing so by shooting a blistering 25-for-40 from two-point territory, with Alan Williams, Mitch Creek and Trey Kell III combining to shoot 20-for-28 within the arc.

The 62.5% mark on two-point attempts was an uncharacteristic number for the New Zealand defence to concede, with the team surrendering a 46.4% mark on those shots entering the night.

Given those numbers, a 26-point blowout loss for the Phoenix will do little to ease the seemingly building frustration from head coach Simon Mitchell when it comes to discussing the team's defence.

"What do you think? 110 points," Mitchell responded when asked if the effort was a step back for the team's overall defensive progress.

"I don't think I've said much about the defence to be honest; I just get sick of talking about it."

Unfortunately, the lack of consistency on the defensive end is the main talking point with this squad and ultimately the sticking point when it comes to entering true contender status. Despite many - including this writer - wanting to place them among the league's elite, they fall well short of Sydney, New Zealand and Cairns across a wider sample size.

The Breakers finished 66% at the rim (6% above league average), 50% from the midrange (13% above league average) and 56% from three (33% above league average) on the night, with little resistance along the way.

"It was one hell of a shooting display, but we made it easier than I thought it had to be," Mitchell lamented.

"We got hit on screens too easy, didn't fight over. (Dererk) Pardon and (Jarrell) Brantley might not have had their biggest nights statistically but just the impact they have on the ball handlers and freeing them up, they did a fantastic job of that."

"Barry Brown Jr. and Will McDowell-White, Barry just blowing by our defence made it difficult. It was plugging holes tonight, whatever we tried to take away they found another way to score. We hurt ourselves with our turnovers, every time we turned it over it led to a bucket. We couldn't take a break tonight. When we did get a couple of stops, we gave up (offensive) boards. Just a disappointing night for us."

After an impressive Throwdown win against Melbourne United two games earlier, Mitchell questioned the narrative around his team's defence, unprompted.

"There's one thing I want to throw out there. The Melbourne United game (a week earlier) was a tough one, a couple guys pulled out on the day. Those guys (who played) didn't take any reps during the week as far as how to defend things. They've had to come in and make a contribution and it was difficult, those things happen.

"We also came up against some pretty darn good shooting and that can be demoralising at times. There were tough shots made. Sometimes guys make shots. Everybody wants to talk about the defence but god damn, praise the ability of the guys making shots as well."

Mitchell's frustration at the scrutiny of South East Melbourne's defence is not totally unexpected, given it has been a theme throughout the club's existence. Through four seasons in the NBL, the Phoenix have finished with a top-three offence and bottom-five defence.

A history of trading buckets (via realgm.com)

Given that nine of the last 11 champions have finished with a top-two defence and no team has won the title outside of the top-four for defensive efficiency in that period, it is justified concern. There are legitimate reasons for some inconsistency, with personnel in and out of the lineup throughout the season due to various injuries. Currently, rim protecting big man, Zhou Qi is on the shelf, with his return set to be a welcome boost for the paint defence.

To start the season, the Phoenix were decimated, with at least three starters missing (and Zhou not yet signed). Since bodies returned the lineup, the Phoenix have won six of nine, but even in that stretch, they rank 8th for defence, giving up 116.4 points per 100 possessions, which is actually worse than the overall season mark.

On the season, teams are taking 79% of their shot attempts against South East Melbourne at the rim and from 3-point territory, with both locations producing above average efficiency. Additionally, opponents are scoring at well above league efficiency off pick-and-roll and cutting actions.

"Tonight, Melbourne didn't make some of the shots and all of a sudden, it's a great defensive performance," Mitchell said after a November 19 win.

"People love to get into team's defence. It happens, there's great play makers and shot makers in this league and sometimes they get the better of you."

Sometimes a hot shooting performance can come down to elite offence and luck, with New Zealand outscoring the Phoenix by 27 points behind the 3-point line on Thursday night in what was a double-outlier shooting performance (10% above or below league average). But if it consistently happens, it can't simply be a tip of your hat to the opposition.

With as much individual talent as any team in the league and arguably the largest depth of offensive weapons, the opportunity to win a much sought-after title appears within the grasp for the club's heart and soul duo of Mitchell and MVP candidate Mitch Creek.

Still one game away from the halfway mark of their season, there is ample time for the Phoenix, but without a consistent string of strong defensive performances, unfortunately, the questions will continue to be asked, even if Mitchell is sick of talking about it.

Stats for this article are sourced from realgm.com and spatialjam.com - The Phoenix are back in action on Saturday night against Melbourne United. Tip-off is live on ESPN and Kayo at 8:00pm.