Back-to-back NZ Breakers silence doubters
Written off across the Tasman, the New Zealand Breakers silenced their detractors, by winning a second consecutive Australian National Basketball League title.
With Tall Blacks' star and potent scorer Kirk Penney departing for Europe and the retirement of club legend Paul Henare many doubted whether the Breakers could defend their silverware before the season tipped off.
The Breakers quickly showed they could adjust to life without Penney, winning seven of their first 10 games. New American point guard Cedric Jackson created an instant impression, while Melbourne Tigers reject Daryl Corletto proved to be an excellent off-season pick-up with his three-point precision.
The Breakers secured home-court advantage for the finals after finishing top of the standings at the end of the regular season with a 21-7 record.
Their semi-final series against the Townsville Crocodiles got off to a disastrous start when they suffered a 17-point blowout loss in the opening game at Auckland's Vector Arena.
With their season on the line, the Breakers travelled to North Queensland trying to stave off elimination.
In what turned out to be a season-defining performance, the Breakers bounced back to level the series with a hard-fought 94-83 win.
The Breakers managed to close out the semi-final series back at home, but the end of the game was marred by a serious ankle injury to Thomas Abercrombie. The athletic swingman soared to the hoop for a dunk when he was fouled hard by the Crocodiles' Pete Crawford, which sparked a heated response from both camps.
The Breakers' grand final series against the Perth Wildcats was an absolute classic, with all three games decided late in the contest.
New Zealand overcame the loss of the injured Abercrombie in game one to win an overtime thriller 104-98 in Auckland. It was a see-saw affair with Perth rallying back from a 15-point halftime deficit to lead by six points in the dying stages of the game. The Breakers made the crucial plays when it mattered to send the game into overtime and snatch the win.
They should have won the title in Perth, with CJ Bruton's potential game-winner blocked by Shawn Redhage on the final possession of the game.
The decider was played in front of a New Zealand basketball record crowd of 9258 fans at Vector Arena.
The game hung in the balance late in the fourth quarter, only for finals MVP Bruton to ensure the result with two huge three pointers. Abercrombie, who had returned from his injury in game two, also pulled off a critical block on Redhage, when Perth drew within two points. American imports Jackson and Gary Wilkinson, the tenacious Mika Vukona, and rising talent Alex Pledger also had pivotal showings in game three to propel the Breakers to victory.
Foundation Breaker Dillon Boucher said the second title meant more to the team because they showed they could deal with the pressure of expectation, while also quietening their critics.
"Proving to ourselves that we could do it back-to-back was very, very satisfying and rewarding," he said.
"It's really put basketball on the map in this country and it's made the Australians look at what we're doing and start to get a bit worried."
Boucher believed the professional attitude of the Breakers' organisation and strong family ethos was integral to their success.
"There's high expectations, not only on the court, but also off the court ... We're striving for excellence in whatever we do."
It was a disappointing year on the international stage, for the Tall Black men and Tall Fern women, who were unable to book a place at the London Olympics, through their respective qualifying tournaments.
Weakened by the absence of the injured Penney and Abercrombie, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Tall Blacks to progress.
In the New Zealand NBL, the Auckland Pirates ended the Wellington Saints' three-peat aspirations with a 89-83 victory in the final. Manawatu's Nick Horvath was named Most Valuable Player of the league, after averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds per game. The Nelson Sparks took out the women's basketball championship, easing to a 61-40 final win over Waitakere West Auckland.
A GOOD YEAR FOR:
The Breakers and Cedric Jackson. Breakers prove inaugural Australian NBL title in previous season was no fluke by going back-to-back. Jackson justifies his reputation as the finest American import to play for the team in their nine year existence.
A BAD YEAR FOR:
The Tall Blacks and Tall Ferns. Neither side features at the London Olympics after failing to progress from their respective qualifying tournaments.
CRYSTAL BALL GAZING:
The Perth Wildcats gain revenge on the Breakers, winning a dramatic Australian NBL grand final series 2-1. Jackson deservedly gets his second chance in the NBA with the freshly-coined New Orleans Pelicans. The star-studded Wellington Saints claim their third New Zealand NBL title in four years.