Vukona signals best yet to come for Breakers
Mika Vukona shrugged off his man-of-the-match heroics for the Breakers on Friday night, declaring himself in attack mode for the entire Australian NBL season.
And that must be worrying news for the Kiwi club's rivals hoping to prevent a threepeat of titles. When Vukona plays like he did in the 73-71 nail-biter over the Townsville Crocodiles at the NSEC, good things tend to happen.
Even for a team still operating a long way below their best, as the Breakers have been over the course of a three-game home stand to open the season. Friday's win took them to 2-1, though it's widely acknowledged they're still very much a work in progress as they find their feet without influential big man Gary Wilkinson.
But if Vukona continues to play like he did against the Crocs, normal service can't be far from returning. The under-sized, over-powered 30-year-old had 15 points (6/11 FG), 15 rebounds, three assists and three steals and made arguably the key play of the game when he forced Crocs star Gary Ervin to turn the ball over with just 10 seconds left and the scores knotted at 71-71.
Afterwards the coaches of both teams sung Vukona's praises. The Breakers' Andrej Lemanis said his power forward was "unbelievable" and "sensational" and reckoned he'd never seen him play better.
Crocs coach Paul Woolpert went even further, labelling the Tall Blacks skipper the "difference" on the night and a player every coach in the league would want.
"He dominates the game in terms of his physicality, he's extraordinarily quick, for a big guy he can defend all five positions on the floor and he's very active. He has to be a fun guy to play with and coach."
Vukona's influence even extended beyond the parameters of the court. At one early time-out, with the Breakers going through one of their defensive funks, the hard-nosed forward stepped up from his spot on the bench and gave his team a verbal blast.
"I might have lost my head a little bit," said Vukona. "I saw something I didn't like and I think anybody else in that situation would have done the same thing."
But the fact it came from Vukona made the message heard loud and clear. He practically shamed his team-mates into playing harder defence, and soon after they were able to work their way back into a game that had threatened to get away on them.
Lemanis loved it. "It's what we've been about the last four or five years -- complete accountability and everybody responsible saying their piece when it needs to be said. It doesn't just fall on the coach."
Vukona admitted his performance had been brewing after a couple of individual efforts that had been well below his high standards. Typically he deflected praise to his team-mates, but he did admit that he his focus had shifted a little.
"I've come into this season with a more aggressive mindset, and whether the baskets go in or not I'm still trying to be aggressive defensively because that's where everything comes from."
Vukona said it had been disappointing to let an 11-point lead slip in the final quarter, but he felt the way the Breakers kept their poise when things were unravelling a little at the finish had to be a positive.
"It's a new season and you've got to learn how to win again," he said. "I think we're heading in the right direction, and just being able to have that poise down the end is what counted.
"There are a lot of things we need to do better. Defensively we're still lapsing. To hold a team to that amount (71 points) is impressive but we have high standards at this club, and if we are to get another championship everything has go up to another level.
"Offensively, the shots will come, and it's just about the composure and being able to ride through that till things start happening. We've just got to continue to go to work and plug away at it."
The Breakers' next game is in Melbourne against the Tigers next Friday night.
- © Fairfax NZ News