Breakers victory over Crocodiles with a cost
A late hard foul that left Breakers star Thomas Abercrombie with a serious ankle injury has dampened celebrations for the New Zealand club after they kept their hopes of back-to-back Australian NBL titles alive tonight.
The Breakers won a pulsating, dramatic and eerily familiar semifinal series against the Townsville Crocs with a convincing 97-80 game-three victory in front of 7500 fans at Vector Arena.
But it may have come at a cost with Crocs star Peter Crawford's hard foul on an Abercrombie dunk attempt with 1:36 left (and the Breakers up 91-76) leaving the talented Tall Black with torn ligaments in his left ankle.
He will have five days to recover ahead of Thursday's opening game of the grand final which will pit the defending champion Breakers against the winner of last night's decider between the Perth Wildcats and Gold Coast Blaze out in the wild west.
The foul caused a heated response from both camps at the time, with angry words exchanged and even Breakers General Manager Richard Clarke getting involved.
Abercrombie gesticulated with unabashed anger at Crawford.
But later both camps appeared to have cooled, with Crawford saying he had meant "no malice" by a legitimate play at the ball and the Breakers testifying that they did not believe Crawford had gone out to hurt Abercrombie.
"I was just making a play for the ball ... I spoke to Tom after the game," said Crawford last night.
"There was no way I meant to hurt him. I didn't think the game was over. Simple as that. I hope he's all right - I don't go out there to hurt anyone."
Crawford said he would be upset if his foul caused Abercrombie to miss the grand final series.
"I'm missing out on the grand final and I know what it feels like. I hope he's all right. I think he's got a week to get right, and I hope for all the best for him."
Crocs coach Paul Wolpert, who was generous in his praise of the Breakers after the game, said he thought it was a legitimate play at the ball by Crawford.
"As a coach you don't want anyone to quit on a play, and if the game was indeed over Abercrombie probably shouldn't have been out there."
Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis described Crawford as a "good kid" and added: "I certainly believe there was no malice. You might question at that stage of the game whether he needed to actually foul him or not, but it's playoff basketball and I guess everyone talks about no layups."
The Breakers won because they dug deep and executed brilliantly down the stretch to shake loose a fabulous Crocs challenge that, truth be told, continued unabated throughout this series.
The decider, with both teams having won on each other's court, was a battle of attrition and fortitude, as much as basketball skill.
They'd gone to-to-toe Thursday night in Townsville, spent most of Friday on planes and then came out and produced a doozey last night.
The defending champions were just too good down the stretch for the Queenslanders, easing out from a 44-42 halftime advantage to lead by 11 (73-62) at the end of the third and by as many as 17 in the final quarter.
"The Breakers are hell of a basketball team," added Wolpert.
"They're not defending champions and regular season champions for nothing. CJ [Bruton] was outstanding and made numerous huge plays. The Breakers had answers for everything tonight. You have to take your hat off to a quality team."
It was - keeping to the script of last year - an emphatic performance from the Breakers who were led by another turn-back-the-clock display from Bruton who tallied 20 points on seven-of-15 shooting, including four-of-nine from deep.
Abercrombie added a valuable 19 points (4/7 FG, 8/9 FT) and Daryl Corletto also chipped in with 19 points (7/14 FG) on a series of darts to the basket.
Gary Wilkinson added 10 points and six boards, Leon Henry made another telling contribution off the bench with two big triples and Jackson sucked up his pain and contributed six points, five rebounds and three assists while playing well within himself.
Dillon Boucher was also at least twice as good as his stats (four points, four rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block) with a bunch of heady hustle plays that no one writes down but everyone knows are difference-makers.
Crawford made his usual array of big shots and Luke Schenscher bothered the Breakers early inside. But these two were defended a lot better over the second half of the contest.
The Breakers won't know until tomorrow how serious Abercrombie's injury is. But given the magical healing hands of physio Anousith Bouaaphone, it would be a major surprise if he didn't present fit for the grand final.
NZ Breakers 97 (CJ Bruton 20, Daryl Corletto 19, Thomas Abercrombie 19, Gary Wilkinson 10), Townsville Crocodiles 80 (Peter Crawford 24, Luke Schenscher 19, Todd Blanchfield 12). 1Q 21-20; HT: 44-42; 3Q 73-62.