South East Melbourne Phoenix have given their NBL semi-final chances a major boost after recording a vital 91-82 victory over the New Zealand Breakers.
A maiden play-off appearance appeared to be a formality for the Phoenix until a spate of injuries and poor form resulted in five losses in the last six starts, leaving the second-year franchise clinging to fourth spot ahead of Wednesday's clash at John Cain Arena.
But with import Keifer Sykes showing signs of his hot early-season form, South East Melbourne held off a late challenge from the Breakers to rise to third on the ladder at 15-14, ahead of Sydney and Illawarra (both on 14-14).
Sykes guided the Phoenix home with 11 points in the final quarter on his way to a team-high 21, while five teammates also finished with double-digit points - a statistic coach Simon Mitchell felt demonstrated his squad is starting to overcome their recent injury woes.
"It probably was a little bit too much work for too few at stages but it's nice to have Keifer back driving the ship, which is important for us moving forward - not just him leading us down the stretch but also just the defensive work that he does, it's very important for our success," Mitchell said.
Mitch Creek finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists in his 250th NBL game, 197 of those with the Adelaide 36ers prior to joining the Phoenix following stints with Brooklyn and Minnesota in the NBA.
Breakers veteran Tom Abercrombie (hamstring) missed his first NBL game in four years, ending a run of 117 consecutive games played, but Finn Delany filled the leadership role by powering his way to 32 points.
With scores tied at 19-19 after a dour opening quarter, Delany was pivotal in New Zealand's strong start to the second term before sloppy turnovers sparked a run of 14 unanswered points from the home side to set up a 47-42 edge at halftime.
The third quarter played out in similar fashion with the Breakers scoring twice before the Phoenix launched a 9-0 run on their way to 64-56 advantage, a lopsided 9-1 steal count working against the visitors.
Breakers centre Rob Loe came up big in the final quarter with a 15-point outburst but Sykes scored seven straight Phoenix points in the clutch, including a three-pointer to put his side up 85-79 with 90 seconds to play.
Breakers coach Dan Shamir was left frustrated after confusion around COVID testing on arrival in Melbourne meant his squad was unable to practise before the game.
"We had this very limited preparation, it's hard for me to complain to the players about not being super on-point and sharp," Shamir said following New Zealand's third loss on the trot.