Veteran guard CJ Bruton has revealed the NZ Breakers are only now "on the same page" as a team, after fouling troubles and late game fades threatened to derail the champions' title defence.
The Breakers' 84-74 victory over the Melbourne Tigers last week - their second straight win for the first time this season - boosted the side to fifth on the Australian NBL ladder with a 4-6 record, after winning just two of their first eight matches.
Though giant forward Mika Vukona's herculean effort of 14 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists stole the majority of the headlines, it was arguably the Breakers' best all-round performance of the year - showing marked improvements on defence.
However, Bruton, who has been a locker room leader for the Breakers since joining the side in 2008, admitted the improvements have been hard earned.
While the typically tight Breakers group haven't been fractured, Bruton said the playing approaches of the players are only now all falling into line.
"We just have to keep working, understanding our offence and the [wider] scheme of things," Bruton told the Sunday Star-Times.
"I don't think, up until this point, we have all been on the same page. We haven't said that to the media, but we all know that.
"We've had to put in extra work to get on the same page and understand that path ahead. That's showed its benefits in what we've done in the past couple of weeks.
"Even with a couple of guys who have had some days missing, we've still been able to show that."
Fouling was a big issue for the Breakers to start the season, with the defending champions struggling with the NBL's tighter interpretations on league defence.
Shooting guard Daryl Corletto went as far as suggesting the tighter rules were part of a NBL conspiracy to make it harder for the Breakers to win a fourth title.
The 20 fouls recorded last week were the Breakers' second-fewest of the season showing Dean Vickerman's side are getting their heads around the rules now - but Bruton said there has been frustration at how long it has taken to happen.
"Those sort of things you are meant to get out of the way in the pre-season and at the start of the season," he said.
"We're 10 games in [now]. We're not finding our identity now - but it has taken a little bit too long trying to get it right."
Vukona's performance against the Tigers certainly helped - and Bruton has let the playing group know that the Tall Black forward has "risen the bar" for the side.
"The play he displayed, for the fans and for the team, well, if we are going to win the championship - that's the standard," he said.
"He has risen the bar for the team. That's no offence to anyone else, or what they have done or accomplished - but we have to play at that level.
"It's important to enjoy this win [against the Tigers] but know that when we come back to practice, there's no time off. We've got to keep working."
The Breakers now face a two-game road trip to play the table-topping Perth, who are 9-1, next Friday before stopping in for a rematch against the Tigers in Melbourne two days later.
Vukona, who brushed aside talk of his individual performance against the Tigers, said getting a win last week was crucial leading into the trip across the Tasman.
"The next two games are really hard - Perth and Melbourne away," he said. Those trips are really tough, and it would have been tough playing those two teams coming off another loss.
"It would have been nice to get a triple-double, but at the end of the day, a stat is a stat - it doesn't really matter, does it? The win is the most important."
- © Fairfax NZ News