Breakers run hot but Wildcats close behind
Predictable. Yet delectable.
The scorching hot New Zealand Breakers have just put together the second-best run of road games in their history, yet the Kiwi hoopsters still can't shake loose the Perth Wildcats.
The Australian NBL's holiday season schedule has confirmed one thing we all suspected from the outset - that the Breakers and the Cats are in a class of their own, and appear destined for a grand final rematch.
There's still plenty of water to flow under the bridge, but last season's grand finalists appear to have already made the minor premiership a two-horse race.
Following the weekend's action the Breakers remain top at 13-3, with the Wildcats tucked neatly in behind them at 11-4, well clear of the third-placed Sydney Kings (10-8). Both have been hugely impressive in and around the busy festive period.
The Breakers have just won four straight road games - which is their second-best away run since they rattled off seven in a row back in 2008-09 - and their last five on the bounce.
But the Cats have been equally slick, winning eight of their last nine to remain just one defeat behind the threepeat-chasing Kiwis.
Remember, too, the Cats all but own the tie-breaker after taking the first two clashes between the great rivals by a combined 46 points.
They will meet twice more during the run home, and it looks like they will be pivotal clashes as the clubs chase the all-important top playoff seeding.
The Breakers have done exceedingly well to keep their focus and their poise over a quartet of tight road games. Friday's 82-78 victory in Townsville was typical of the holiday season run, with the Kiwi club having to battle back from 15 down at halftime and a seven-point deficit inside the final four minutes.
"We're finding ways to win on the road during this stretch," noted Breakers star Tom Abercrombie after his game-winning heroics in North Queensland.
"It hasn't been pretty at times but we've kept grinding and we've come up with some big buckets at the end."
Abercrombie's return to form as he scored nine straight points - and 19 in total - to strap the team on his back over the closing minutes, was one of the real positives from the latest road success.
But just one. The Breakers smashed the Crocs on the boards (44-18) and found a way to win even while allowing their hosts to shoot a stellar 54 per cent from the floor.
Their ability to claw back big deficits is also a promising sign.
"We've had to go through different things and we've found different ways to win," noted coach Andrej Lemanis.
"In Adelaide we were down 21 at the half and found a way to win. In Wollongong there were 22 lead changes and 10 ties, and we found a way to win.
"With that comes a confidence that no matter what's going on, if you keep playing a certain way you're going to give yourself at least a chance to get back in the game and win it.
"This group has been together a while and has experienced success together. That builds a belief that you're never out of it."
Abercrombie and his backup at small forward, Leon Henry, provided the two key offensive parts of the Breakers' latest comeback equation.
Henry's back-to-back triples at the end of the third quarter were huge momentum-changers as the Breakers halved a 12-point deficit in the final minute.
Assistant coach Dean Vickerman added: "It was huge for Leon to make those threes at the end of the third, and to see Tommy close out the game the way he did was outstanding for his confidence, and good to see him doing that again. .
"We ran some plays for Tom at the end, and Mika [Vukona] set some fantastic screens to get him open. You could just see the change in him as a person.
"He was running around confident. We need him to be like that during the playoff period."
Vickerman described the Townsville victory as "hugely important" as the Breakers continue to keep their noses ahead of the pursuing Wildcats at the top end of the table.
"We put a pretty big focus on these four games to try and get them all," he said.
"Some people were talking about three out of four. But we expect to go and win every game.
"We're halfway through this heavy stretch right now, and we've got another four games over the next couple of weeks. We've just got to freshen these guys up and make sure they're ready for Thursday (at home against Wollongong) and Sunday (at Adelaide)."
It wasn't just the Abercrombie and Henry show in Townsville.
Cedric Jackson (10 points, 10 boards, eight assists and three steals) had his usual stats-stuffer, the two-headed centre combination of Will Hudson and Alex Pledger combined for 20 points and 17 rebounds, while Vukona (eight points, eight boards, five assists) and Dillon Boucher both made some big plays.
But Vickerman had no doubts about what won the Breakers the game.
"Our rebounding was outstanding again," he said.
"If we keep winning that much possession we can win games shooting at 43 per cent. There was a huge commitment from everybody on the boards."
The Breakers will resume training tomorrow after players were given a couple of days' well-earned rest.
Boucher at the weekend became the "winningest" Breaker ever, passing Paul Henare's 116 career wins from 204 appearances
Jackson and Daryl Corletto will make their 50th appearances for the club on Thursday night against the Hawks at the NSEC.