Breakers chasing holiday road trip sweep
It's not quite the final frontier, but Andrej Lemanis' New Zealand Breakers are on the verge of achieving something rather special in Townsville tonight.
If the Breakers can douse the red-hot Townsville Crocodiles at The Swamp (tipoff 10.30pm, NZ time) they will finish their annual festive season road haul with a 4-0 sweep. And that's something, for all their recent success, they have never managed before.
The back-to-back Australian NBL champions - snubbed as Halberg Award finalists for a second straight year - make a rod for their own backs by playing all their holiday season games on the road. In previous years they have always tripped up at least once.
But this Breakers squad has embraced that challenge and ground out consecutive tough wins at the Adelaide 36ers (71-66, from 21 down), the Cairns Taipans (66-61) and the Wollongong Hawks (78-76, via CJ Bruton's game-winning triple).
It hasn't been pretty - they won two of those games while shooting under 40 per cent from the floor - but there has been a lot to admire about the way the Breakers have gone about their work.
They have played some fabulous defence, earning an average of 11 more shots than their opponents over the road trifecta. They have won the rebounding contest in two of the three victories, and shared it in the other; and have nudged the turnover count twice.
They are winning the effort battles, and that is getting them over the line.
The Breakers' focus, as usual, remains firmly fixed on tonight's contest as a single entity. They know this is a different Crocs outfit with the mid-season addition of seven-footer Luke Nevill, and five straight wins after an 0-10 start testify to that.
But these Breakers take huge pride in their work and at the back of their minds they know a win tonight would put the cap on a pivotal period as they look to push on for a title threepeat.
Lemanis loved the belief and stickability that saw his men haul in the 36ers in Adelaide; he enjoyed the defensive slugfest in Cairns; and he admired the composure shown in the Gong where his men prevailed in a tussle with something like 22 lead changes and 10 ties.
"We're finding different ways to win, and a real confidence and belief has grown in the group over the last three games that will hold us in good stead over the back half of the season," he said.
The Crocs offer a legitimate test to finish the road haul. Nevill's presence in the pivot has flicked a switch, and they are a long way from the easybeats of the pre-Christmas period.
"The monkey is off the back now and they're feeling good about life," added Lemanis. "They look a lot like that team they had last year, that big fella in the middle surrounded with a bunch of shooters. That presents its challenges."
Lemanis understands his is a team still evolving. Transition defence remains inconsistent, and the offence also remains a work in progress, though the emergence of backup big Will Hudson as a consistent performer has been a welcome Christmas gift.
"We're coming together, we're clicking and this is the right time to do it," said Hudson who's averaged 16.3 points and 9.3 rebounds over the stretch. "It's been a good test and helps us keep building for that March-April time."
And Townsville, says Hudson, will be another excellent examination of the mettle. "It's another away game, they'll have a big crowd, they've got real good shooters and they shoot a lot of three-pointers. We'll have to play well."
Three out of four ain't bad. But four is very much the focus tonight.
- Fairfax Media