Breakers out to secure No 1 spot for playoffs

SOUTHERN DASH: New Zealand Breakers' small forward Leon Henry.
SOUTHERN DASH: New Zealand Breakers' small forward Leon Henry.

Having come through a gruelling holiday season schedule without a misstep, the Breakers must now come to grips with an altogether different challenge.

For New Zealand's premier sporting franchise, starting tonight in Sydney against a desperate Kings outfit fighting for their playoff lives, their Australian NBL season shifts to a comparatively leisurely pace.

After playing eight games between December 28 and January 26, six of which came across the Tasman, the league champions are back to game-a-week mode.

Their last game - a club record 10th victory on the trot - was against Perth last Friday at Vector Arena in Auckland and they have had eight days to prepare for their final trip for the season to Sydney.

The regular diet of games and travel clearly suited Andrej Lemanis' Breakers as they responded with a standard of hoops that seemed to get better as they became more fatigued.

Over the last four games the Breakers have averaged 92 points and made 47 out of 100 three-pointers. Prior to that they were running at 76.7ppg and shooting just 33 per cent from distance. They're what you call 'in the zone'.

The trick now is to maintain this form without the rapid fire games that seemed to bring the best out in them.

"There's a challenge in staying hungry, staying motivated through practice sessions and then bringing that edge to the games," said Lemanis before yesterday's flight to Sydney.

The Breakers are now guaranteed a playoff berth and are playing to secure the all-important No 1 seed. They have a two-game edge over the Perth Wildcats at the top of the standings.

To that end the coaches have mapped out a strategy that will take them into April's playoffs in what they believe will be the best possible stead. Some weeks the load will be heavy, some light.

"Nothing changes as far as game to game," added Lemanis. "That's always been our focus and what makes us a good basketball team is our ability to stay focused on the here and now. But from a players' point of view this is an important period for us to manage."

Making Lemanis' job easier in terms of workload is the emergence of his bench under the veteran leadership of Dillon Boucher and CJ Bruton. With Leon Henry coming of age, Corey Webster in attack mode and Will Hudson bringing his brand of work ethic and relentlessness, there's no let-off over the 40 minutes.

Bruton said the key there was that the bench mob - the 'Blue Squad' - have all got their heads around their roles. "When you accept it and start playing to that role it shows out in the game and shows in how much fun you have."

He's especially proud that Henry and Webster are now starting to contribute significant minutes. "We are 10-deep, and we can attack in a lot different ways," said the 37-year-old who scored 14 of the bench's 45 points against the Cats.

"Corey's made an amazing transition. He's overcome a lot but has also grown so much; and Leon's made probably the biggest move. He's playing the three spot and the four, he stretches the floor and gives us a different look."

Bruton's heard talk that the Breakers have peaked. But he doesn't buy it.

"We're progressing in the right direction, but we're not where we need to be. I firmly believe we've still got another level we can go to."

And Bruton warns the 10-11 Kings will "throw everything at us" as they scrap to stay in the playoff picture. 

That's something Lemanis is figuring on dealing with from now till the end of the regular season. 

"You're going to get desperation and you're going to get energy. [Ian] Crosswhite is playing well, [Ben] Madgen does a good job, Corin Henry can light it up and Harvs (James Harvey) is back. We're going to have to play well to beat them." 

Fairfax Media