Veterans star as Breakers make it three
Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis choked back the tears and paid tribute to his two special veterans as the New Zealand club rounded out one of the most emphatic seasons in the Australian NBL's history.
The Breakers, in front of 13,527 screaming fans at the brand new Perth Arena, completed a 2-0 sweep of the grand final with a thrilling 70-66 victory over those gritty, gnarly Wildcats.
The road win - snapping a 14-game win streak by the Wildcats at their home fortress - completed a remarkable season for Lemanis' Breakers who become just the second club in league history to secure a title threepeat. The Sydney Kings also achieved the feat from 2002-05.
The Breakers also matched the feat of the '04-05 Kings by going through the post-season undefeated, and finished with a record of 24 wins and just four defeats for the entire campaign - including a 16-game winning streak.
This Friday night blockbuster in Perth turned into a classic, with the Breakers leading by 11 after three quarters, but seeing the Cats close the deficit right up to a single bucket midway through the final period.
As is so often the way in playoff contests between these two great rivals, this game came down to big moments and big plays in the final minute or two, with the Breakers just able to keep their noses in front of the scrappy Wildcats who fought to the bitter end.
And Lemanis' two 37-year-old veterans were big parts of a famous victory. CJ Bruton finished with a game-high 16 points and knocked down four of his five three-pointers to constantly provide the offensive injections the Kiwi club needed to stay in front.
He also coolly slotted two free-throws with nine seconds left to ice the victory.
And the retiring Dillon Boucher shook off an aching body and a bout of illness to play 27 minutes and 53 seconds after Mika Vukona fouled out of the contest in just over 11 minutes of court-time.
"That's one of the things I'm most proud of and most thankful for, the fact we've got a group of veteran guys, and to get a synergy and have them all sacrifice individually for the good of the group it's never easy," said Lemanis.
"To do it once you can kind of stumble on to it, but to go through that pain again, to go through all that war again to get yourself in position to do it again means that they're pretty special people.
"That for me is ultimately what our club is. We're made of just special people, from the ownership, right down through management, support staff, coaching staff and obviously the players."
Lemanis said Bruton's six NBL titles - the equal most in league history - spoke volumes for where he stood in the game's history.
"How many league MVPs has he played with - four or five? - that for me speaks exactly to who CJ is. He's played with all those league MVPs, yet he's never been league MVP himself. But he's won six titles.
"He completely understands what it takes for teams to win. He's the ultimate in being able to connect with his team-mates, and he can get the best out of all of them.
"I'm just blessed to have a player like CJ in our group because it makes coaching so much easier when he's such a leader within the team, understands what the team needs at different times and picks his moments to step up and lead from the front."
Then there is Boucher. The old warrior's numbers were again nothing special - two points, four rebounds, two assists - but he dug as deep as he's had to for a long time in the face of some pretty physical Wildcats play.
With Vukona a virtual passenger with his foul trouble, Boucher had to shrug off his illness, a broken toe that's bothered him for the last few months and numerous other aches and pains, and just do what he had to.
"He just told me after the game [that he'd been sick]," reflected Lemanis. "I said your room-mate picked a hell of a time to foul out in not many minutes.
"But it speaks to who our team has been all year. It's been a special team because of people like Dillon. Everybody sacrifices and does their bit at different times.
"Dillon played himself to exhaustion. There were times I'm looking at him going the guy can't even move. I'd ask him 'Dillon, do you need sub' and he's 'no, no coach, I'm alright'. That's testament to who each of them are as people and what they're prepared to give to the group."
Asked to rate this championship, Lemanis, who may be leaving the club to take the Boomers job, said: "They're all different, they're all special in their own way. This is my first time winning on the road, so that's a different experience. I'm just very proud of the group, and humbled to be their coach with such a great team."
Bruton said it was a great moment to win the championship in Perth, where he grew up, where he watched his father - NBL hall of famer Cal Bruton - create something so strong and lasting and where he took his first steps as a player in this league.
"This one's special," he said. "I was telling DC (Daryl Corletto) you talk about the championships and what means the most. It's the players you play with. It's always special who you go to war with...
"I told him my first one in New Zealand was great because we were playing for a country, and I just felt a little more pride in being able to be part of that. To be able to do it three times and put ourselves on a pedestal, with a group where all of us have been a part of three titles, it's very special."
So many Breakers played their parts as usual. Cedric Jackson had a huge second half to add the finals MVP award to his regular season accolade. Corletto was strong again, and Tom Abercrombie and Alex Pledger both contributed on the boards, and with their shot-blocking.
But for the two old guys, this threepeat was something they'll treasure for a long, long time. Especially Boucher whose final moment as a Breaker was to fling the ball skywards with the championship - his fourth - in the bag.