A powerhouse performance from Mitch Creek has inspired South East Melbourne Phoenix to an impressive 87-77 victory over the Cairns Taipans in the first NBL clash to be staged at the Gippsland Regional Indoor Sports Stadium.
Creek played all but two minutes of Tuesday night's clash and delivered 26 points, eight rebounds and seven steals as the third-placed Phoenix broke out of their recent shooting slump to improve their season record to 5-2.
With the scores level at 19-19 after one quarter, South East Melbourne's smothering defence allowed their long-range shooters to cash with six three-pointers in a 30-18 second term as the Phoenix surged ahead at halftime.
The Taipans battled hard to make inroads into the Phoenix lead throughout the second half, Twith aj McCall (16 points, nine assists) combining with Majok Deng and Bul Kuol (13 points each) to help the visitors close the margin to six points on multiple occasions.
But Creek capped a stellar night with nine points and three steals in the fourth quarter as the Phoenix successfully backed up from Sunday's 13-point win in Tasmania over the JackJumpers.
Coach Simon Mitchell paid tribute to Creek's resilience for his return to MVP-level form after a difficult 2020-21 season and a recent bout of COVID-19.
"He seems to have a little bit more zest from last year. He seems to have fallen back in love with the game, which I think is important," Mitchell said about his marquee man.
"He's is a great leader for this ball club, he's a great locker-room presence and a great instructor to his teammates.
"I think his name could probably go with those three letters (MVP) at this point in the season but it's a long way to go."
The late withdrawal of Chinese centre Zhou Qi (illness) threatened to destabilise the home team's defensive schemes but Creek and Ryan Broekhoff combined for seven steals in the first half as the Phoenix scored 22 points off the back of 13 forced turnovers.
The Taipans -- with star point guard Scott Machado still absent with a heel injury -- were playing just their fifth game of the season and first in 25 days, having last taken to the court on New Year's Eve in a loss to the Perth Wildcats.
But coach Adam Forde was more concerned about his squad's efforts on defence after conceding 34 points off turnovers for the game.
"They had six three-pointers in the second quarter, the majority of those were all in transition ... that's the deciding factor," Forde said as the Taipans dropped to 2-3 for the season.
"Our transition defence wasn't great, and that's something we've been really locking in on.
"I don't want to use COVID as an excuse, just get back and defend and we didn't."