Team the most important thing for Vukona
Two hundred games for the Breakers? With respect, Mika Vukona has more important things to worry about as Australia’s National Basketball League heads into the final month of the regular season.
Vukona is the last person who would wallow in a milestone like the one he brings up tonight at Vector, when the 20-3 league-leading Breakers host the 8-16 Adelaide 36ers.
The 30-year-old starting power forward, and backup centre in the absence of the injured Will Hudson, is the ultimate team man and almost certainly the most respected player in the entire league.
No one plays harder than Vukona. That’s a given. No one matches his dogged pursuit of the rebound or loose ball. That’s how he’s wired. And few – with the possible exception of close friend and team-mate Dillon Boucher – are prepared to sacrifice their own individual glory for the team goal to the extent Vukona is.
How good is he? Put it this way, averages of 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists only scratch the surface of how important the Tall Blacks skippers is to the Breakers.
When he feels like it he can put 20 points on the board in a heartbeat (he’s done it twice this season). If you dared him, he could go close to that in rebounds too. He has that sort of will, athleticism, strength and skill.
But Vukona prefers to get his team-mates involved, so he doesn’t shoot the ball nearly as much as he should. He’d rather set the tone on defence, where he’s a beast, and plays so hard that opposing coaches are often left drooling over what it would be like to have him.
So Vukona was confused when we congratulated him on his 200-game feat this week. News to him. Hadn’t he already achieved the mark a month or so back?
Er, no. That was something else. This is a Breakers number, completed over two stints, interrupted by a couple of seasons playing for rival clubs across the ditch.
Vukona paused and then made the required reflection – “I’m a bit surprised, it feels like I’ve played more than that” – and then cut to the chase.
As much as it seems like the Breakers have streeted the league with their record 12 straight victories, those pesky Perth Wildcats remain in, er, dogged pursuit. That’s why every one of these last five regular season games are “massive”.
Vukona understands the importance of finishing first – and gaining home court advantage.
He’s also well aware that one slipup may be all it takes for the slinky Cats who are two losses back, but host the Breakers in the round-robin closer and have the tie-breaker sewn up.
“We can’t drop a game,” says Vukona. “We don’t want to go to Perth thinking we have to win. The more we win these early games, the easier it will be towards the end.”
That’s why Vukona cautions against under-estimating a 36ers side the Breakers have won 14 straight against.
“CJ [Bruton] said this is a club coming out swinging and they’re going to throw everything at you. We’ve seen that their last two games they won against quality teams (on the road), so they’re coming in with confidence.”
Vukona admits to being a little battered (a tight back restricted him on Monday, and he copped an elbow in the throat from Alex Pledger on Tuesday) but says “winning makes everything easy… I’m feeling awesome at the moment”.
Breakers boss Richard Clarke jokes they should commemorate Vukona’s milestone by building a concrete wall outside the changing-room for him to run through and coach Andrej Lemanis, who joins the 250-game club tonight, says he’s exactly the reason he feels proud to have had such a long association with the club.
“Everyone knows what he brings as far as his tenacity, his never-say-die attitude and ability to just make plays out of nothing. This week he’s beaten up and sore, but it’s hard to get him to sit out of anything. He just wants to contribute to the group.
“To have a player like that is invaluable, and he’s grown into a fantastic leader of this club.”
Vukona is asked whether we will see his dreaded attack mode tonight. That expressive face beams.
“Definitely. It’s what I’ve been trying to do the last month. I’m enjoying the way I’m playing so why wouldn’t I continue?”