Breakers close but no cigar at Perth Wildcats
The frustration was evident as the Breakers put in arguably their best performance of the season in Perth on Friday night, only to be rewarded with a seventh defeat for this off-key Australian NBL campaign.
"We're really close to getting it right," said an exasperated assistant coach Paul Henare after an agonising 95-91 defeat to the league-leading Perth Wildcats that drops the defending champions to 4-7, and once again outside the top four.
"The strength of the group in terms of believing in each other, in Deano (head coach Dean Vickerman) and in the systems, is getting us to a point where we came close to beating the No 1 team that not many teams have got close to this year."
The disappointing thing from a Breakers perspective was that they weren't quite able to nail what would have been a brilliant comeback victory, after trailing by 18 in the first half, and 16 late in the third period.
The Kiwi threepeat champions closed to within a single point inside the final two minutes, but luck and the referees' whistles did not go their way as the Wildcats eked out the most hard fought of victories, sealed by a banked desperation three-pointer from Wildcats star James Ennis with six seconds on the clock.
The Ennis shot - from a couple of metres beyond the arc in front of the hoop, and off a scrambled play - was pure fortune, but you had to credit the Wildcats for riding home their terrific import tandem. Ennis finished with 31 points (10/16 FG, 3/6 3PT) and sharpshooting guard Jermaine Beal, who slotted eight three-pointers, had 30 points.
"We got beaten by two guys, and did a pretty good job on the rest of their team," reflected Henare. "Hopefully we can make some adjustments next time."
The bad thing for the Breakers was that they had identified Beal as a guy they needed to contain.
"We spoke a lot going in about individual tendencies," said Henare. "Beal was one we wanted to take away the three and at the start of the game he gets three wide open threes, and at this level once good players get going they're hard to stop.
"He finished the game with eight threes, and takes 15. If we do a better job on that guy maybe it's a different ball game."
Still, Heanre felt there was enough for the Breakers to feel encouraged about as they headed to Melbourne for what shapes as a vital second half of the road double tomorrow afternoon (tipoff 4pm, NZ time).
The Kiwi club had five double-figure scorers (led by Gary Wilkinson's fluid 19), shot a solid 53 per cent from the floor and on another night would have made enough shots to walk away with a very credible victory. But in Perth the margin of error is tiny.
"We've really started to find our flow offensively," said the Breakers assistant coach. "Guys are finding little bit of form. It was great to see Gary find some form and be really aggressive. The last few weeks we've been playing well, and even in some of the earlier losses we've been shooting the ball pretty well. We were just having high turnover games and that was putting the defence under pressure."
The Breakers got no love from the refs, with Vukona particularly hard done by on one or two calls as he fouled out late. But Henare was not keen to point any fingers at the officials.
"We felt like there were some that went against us, but there wasn't a glaring disparity in the foul count (20 to 27), and we shot 26 free-throws compared to their 31. There are always some [calls] you can debate, but over here and on the road you've got to be able to fight through some of that stuff."
The good thing is that the Breakers get the chance to bounce back quickly. It is also veteran guard CJ Bruton's 500th ANBL game. If ever a win was needed, it's tomorrow for a Breakers outfit looking to turn promise into something a little more tangible.
Perth Wildcats 95 (James Ennis 31, Jermaine Beal 30, Matt Knight 12), NZ Breakers 91 (Gary Wilkinson 19, Mika Vukona 17, Daryl Corletto 14, Tom Abercrombie 11, Kerron Johnson 10).1Q: 33-21; HT: 50-45; 3Q: 77-65.