Melbourne United have celebrated the long-awaited return of Jo Lual-Acuil but it was fellow centre Ariel Hukporti who starred in a 101-91 defeat of the lllawarra Hawks.
NBL heavyweights United only kicked clear from last season's wooden spooners towards the end of the third quarter following a high-scoring first half at WIN Entertainment Centre on Friday.
Again sloppy from the field, the Hawks missed nine consecutive shots to finish the third period as United (5-1) opened up a 14-point lead that proved match-winning.
"We just have these patches against really good basketball teams that let us down," said Hawks coach Jacob Jackomas.
"The shots weren't disgusting today, just some little things right now. We said that before with the team is that we need to do all the little things right against this basketball team and we didn't."
Big man Gary Clark (17 points) was one of few Hawks who got his eye in, with imports Tyler Harvey (19 points, six from 16 attempts) and Justin Robinson (nine points, two from eight) again struggling.
Robinson was one of three Hawks to foul out, alongside big men Sam Froling and Lachlan Olbrich.
Despite Illawarra's shooting issues, United gave up more first half points (51) than in any other of their games this season.
The Hawks dominated the offensive glass (18-10) and punished United with 21 points from turnovers.
But they finished the day shooting at 38 percent from the field to United's 53, which made things difficult, especially when United locked the paint down in the third quarter.
"It took us a little bit of time to wake up with their physicality and the way they got after it," said United coach Dean Vickerman.
NBL champion Lual-Acuil returned from a wrist injury for the first minutes of his United comeback, while NBA hopeful Hukporti (21 points, 10 rebounds) shone for the visitors.
Hukporti was United's rock under the basket and a defensive board in the final minute sealed his third double-double from five games this season.
"I think I've found my role in the team now, it took me a while because I'm coming off the (achilles) injury and it was a year out," Hukporti said.
"I've got it now, I know what my role is and I think I did a great job today."
Lual-Acuil had a scratchy start, missing his first two free-throws and subbing out to change out of an incorrect pair of shorts, but went on to register 12 points on a minutes restriction.
"He's going to see double-teams down there so once we get our spacing right and our cutting right to play off that, he's going to be a weapon," Vickerman said.
Projected NBA draft lottery pick AJ Johnson had his best Hawks game yet, but was again short on opportunities.
The teenager set the crowd alight with his first NBL three-pointer just after quarter time and sent a dime through traffic that led to a Gary Clark jam on transition soon afterwards.