Lemanis remaining grounded over expectations
It's early days and Andrej Lemanis is already running a mile from the hype, but Thursday night's New Zealand Breakers visit to Perth assuredly has a finals feel about it.
Especially given that the 7-1 Breakers are in the form of their lives - just one win off equalling their best ever winning streak - and the gnarly old 3-3 Cats are coming off an unthinkable three straight NBL defeats and risk dropping out of the top four altogether.
Circumstances make Thursday night's round eight opener a potentially defining game for both clubs. The Breakers, with a record-tying eighth straight win, could effectively establish a three-game buffer on the outfit considered the biggest obstacle between them and a title threepeat. That would be some advantage, even with two-thirds of the season still to play out.
But a Perth win - remember they are the only team to beat the Breakers this season - would get them within one loss of the Kiwis and in a commanding position to own the tie-breaker.
It is just one game of 28 - a line Lemanis loves to pedal out - but there can be no doubt it's a contest that could swing this season decisively one way or the other. Of course, no one knows the importance of playoff home advantage better than the Breakers who have won all four of their best-of-three series via a deciding third game back in Auckland.
Adding to the stakes is the fact that the Cats are seemingly stuck in a spiral of decline. A fortnight ago they were thumped 100-67 by Wollongong for their first defeat of 2012-13, last weekend they were upset 77-65 at Adelaide and then on Friday night in their home opener in front of more than 11,000 fans they were also pipped 69-65 by the resurgent 36ers.
Wildcats-Breakers fixtures are pretty brutal affairs at the best of times, but with the feral felines practically backed into a corner, the fur could fly at what should be a sold-out Perth Arena late Thursday (tipoff 11.30pm NZ time).
If that's the case the Breakers would appear as ready as they can be, Friday night's 93-63 demolition of the hapless Townsville Crocodiles a strong indication that the Kiwi club's offence is at last catching up on its defence.
"It's one of those ones they'll be fired up for, we'll be fired up for, and it should be a great game of basketball," said Lemanis after his team shot 48 percent from distance and from the field to put some serious hurt on the Crocs.
"We feel good. We're playing well, we've been playing better each week, and there's no better time to go in and just play well."
But is there something extra on it, given all of the above?
"Nah," shot back at Lemanis, who at least pondered the thought for a while. "You've got to play them four times, and results are the results. Are we going try harder? We're going to do what we do, they will do what they do, and everyone will get up for the game.
"It's a good challenge for us, and we'll mentally be in a good spot going in."
Breakers centre Alex Pledger, who matched his career-high of 18 points in a dominant display against the Crocs, indicated that from a players' perspective at least the stakes went up this week.
"We got embarrassed that first game," said Pledger, referring to Perth's 93-72 victory in Auckland. "We'll be playing in the new arena, in front of 12,000 people who don't like us very much. It will be a good environment to play in, and going against a title contender like Perth in front of that many people is going to be a great challenge."
There was a lot to like about the Breakers' seventh straight win, at Vector against the Crocs. Led by Pledger's 18 points on eight-of-11 shooting, they got five players in double-figures, broke 90 for the first time this campaign, and kept their opponents to just 40 percent shooting (23 from deep) and a miserable eight second-quarter points.
Cedric Jackson's 11 assists (his third straight double-double, with 10 points, four boards and three steals) also marked an historic accomplishment - the first time since the NBL went to 40-minute games that a player had gone for double-figures in dishes for three consecutive games.
- © Fairfax NZ News