Phoenix rising: Belief is central to South East Melbourne’s first finals series

Simon Mitchell and Mitch Creek have been with South East Melbourne together since its foundation. (Photo: South East Melbourne Phoenix/Twitter)

The National Basketball League’s most-recently entered team, the South East Melbourne Phoenix, have qualified for their first finals appearance in franchise history. Founded in 2018, the organisation is preparing to take on rivals Melbourne United in this weekend’s semi-finals fixture.

Speaking to media on Thursday ahead of Game One against United on Friday night, South East Melbourne coach Simon Mitchell and forward Ryan Broekhoff provided an insight into the team’s preparations ahead of its first post-season showing.

Mitchell made it known that where the team sits now and the path its about to embark on this weekend is as much an organisational success as it is a team success.

South East Melbourne, founded in 2018, has been constantly improved by the hard work of Chief Executive Officer Tommy Greer and Head of Operations Rohan Smith.

Mitchell was tasked with taking a completely new franchise into the 2019/20 NBL season. He got together with the club’s first marquee signing Mitch Creek, collectively agreeing they wouldn’t be a side starved of success for long.

“We’ve always held ourselves to pretty high standards and from the get-go when myself and Mitch, when Mitch was the only player, [we] kind of eyeballed each other and said ‘hey, we’re not gonna be one of those five-year projects, we want to be competitive from the get-go’,” Mitchell explained.

“And we were hoping that would be last year. Obviously we incurred a number of injuries that prevented us from really reaching our potential last year.”

The second year of free agency allowed the Phoenix to pick up the likes of Reuben Te Rangi and Cameron Gliddon from Brisbane prior to the season and Broekhoff during the season, contributing to an already-strong squad.

Rookie signings Mike Karena and Yannick Wetzell also assisted in the Phoenix’s plans to get better defensively, something that Mitchell indicated needed tweaking before this season.

“We just didn’t have enough length on the wings, we weren’t able to stay in front of the ball enough and we went and recruited with guys who could stay in front of the ball and that’s helped us,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell is aware of the status of the Phoenix from an outside perspective however, as the club who scraped into the top four on percentage ahead of the fifth-placed Sydney Kings. The coach isn’t buying into the notion it will be a walkover for United.

“It’s just a natural growth for us but we’re probably a year ahead of where a lot of pundits had us,” Mitchell said.

“We haven’t listened to people from the outside from the get-go so we’ve done it our way.

“It’s something that perhaps [we] might reflect on at a later time. Right now I don’t really feel like patting the guys or ourselves on the back too much, we’ve still got a job at hand.”

Responding to reports of the Phoenix being underdogs, especially against a United side which finished three games clear on top of the NBL ladder, Broekhoff said there was an overarching feeling of belief within the team.

“It’s very much internal and a quiet confidence that we have the pieces and have the team and everything to go out and get the job done,” Broekhoff said.

“I think we have a real belief in our team and in our system and in the gameplan that the coaches put together, that we feel confident going into every game whether we’re odds-on favourites or underdogs.”

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The circumstances surrounding Victoria’s current COVID restrictions has meant the game between the two Melbourne-based clubs isn’t able to be played in their home state. In another blow to each club, fans won’t be allowed into Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney to cheer on their respective teams.

“We would love to have fans and play in Melbourne but circumstances are what they are. We have to create the energy,” Broekhoff remarked.

“There’s no excuses for not talking on the court and on the bench and having our communication on point which is going to be very important for us defensively. For us, it offers us the challenge to be loud, create our own energy and make sure that our communication is at a high level.”

A final round 10-point loss to Brisbane had Mitchell licking his wounds, ending the regular season on a sour note but agreed that there’s a new focus, explaining “the regular season is a dress rehearsal” for the playoffs.

For the South East Melbourne Phoenix, there is an understanding of the heightened pressure finals can bring but they’re staying away from that noise, instead focusing on treating the next few games like any other.

“I think the headspace for most of the guys is probably within that same area, just looking forward to the challenge of playing in a semi-final series,” Mitchell said.

Mitch Creek was a big-game player when the South East Melbourne Phoenix last took on Melbourne United.
(Photo: South East Melbourne Phoenix/Twitter)

Identifying United’s star players and potential might provide the Phoenix with a few headaches, but Mitchell was adamant the players know what’s ahead.

Mitchell says an ability to target certain playmakers like Chris Goulding and Jock Landale who have given the Phoenix trouble in the past will go a long way to deciding the series.

“We have a belief in this group. Obviously Melbourne are an excellent team. They’ve got great depth, we’ve got really high-end, blue-chip guys,” Mitchell said.

“Most important about Melbourne is [to] keep them out of transition and keep them off the offensive boards and then force them into that half-court execution.

“There’s only one ball and it can only be in one player’s hands at a time and we’ve just got to make sure each individual on our team does a job and that we’re prepared as best we can in a very short preparation time to quell their influence.”

In five meetings between the Phoenix and United this season, Mitchell’s side has won two, including the most recent matchup in Round 18.

Broekhoff revealed the importance in making a fast start, adding anything can happen as a new chapter gets written into South East Melbourne history.

“Finals obviously, it just brings the intensity up and brings the physicality up and we just need to be able to match that and exceed them and make sure we’re on the front foot from the get-go,” Broekhoff remarked.

“Finals games, anything can happen and we just need to get off to a good start.”

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