Phoenix in box seat for NBL finals debut

·2-min read

A Keifer Sykes-inspired South East Melbourne Phoenix have all but locked up a maiden NBL finals appearance after holding out New Zealand Breakers 83-78 in Auckland.

In just the franchise's second season, the Phoenix are in the box seat to snap up the last playoff spot on offer after retaining fourth place on a congested ladder with one game to play.

Import Sykes proved the difference on Saturday with 29 points - including 21 in the first half - along with seven rebounds and five assists to help the Phoenix overcome a Breakers' fourth-quarter fightback and snap a two-game losing streak.

The Phoenix moved to a 19-16 season tally, ahead of fifth-placed Sydney Kings (18-17) and No.6-ranked Brisbane Bullets (17-17), who were playing each other on Saturday night.

The Phoenix contest their last regular season game against the Bullets in Brisbane on Tuesday and can finish as high as third with another victory.

Even if either Sydney or Brisbane equal the Phoenix's 19 wins, South East Melbourne's superior points percentage looks set to help them lock up fourth.

After breaking hearts at the second-last Breakers' season finale, Phoenix's points percentage is a league-best 109, easily eclipsing the Kings (100.80) and Brisbane (97.46).

The Phoenix looked to be cruising to victory with a 14-point lead in the fourth term before Breakers livewire guard Tai Webster - spurred on by a sold out, 4000-plus home crowd - ensured some anxious moments.

Webster dropped 11 points in the final term to finish with 26 overall as the Breakers cut the deficit to just four with only two minutes left.

But after letting double digit leads slip in their previous two games, Phoenix dug in to ice the win.

Boomers star Ryan Broekhoff (eight points, 10 rebounds) and bench weapon Ben Moore (11pts, eight boards) also impressed for the visitors.

Phoenix star Mitch Creek saluted his team, who have not been able to return home since the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria began,but tried not to get ahead of himself after the much-needed win.

"We are not there (in finals) yet. Stranger things have happened," he said.

"The guys have been on the road, had their backs against the wall. It's been pretty unsettling but I think we found our feet tonight by closing out a tough game.

"To say in our second year we have all but made the finals is pretty surreal."

The match drew the curtain on a frustrating campaign for the Breakers (12-24 tally) who had returned to New Zealand for their season's final seven games after more than five months on the road due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

They finished with a 3-4 record in their stretch of belated home games.

Finn Delany (18 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and Colton Iverson (10pts, 12 boards) also impressed for the hosts.