Breakers come up short on Bruton's big night
It was supposed to be a celebration of CJ Bruton's outstanding Australian NBL career, instead it turned into a recurring nightmare for the slumping NZ Breakers.
Bruton yesterday became just the 12th player in the league's history to rack up 500 games, but could not reproduce his trademark magic when it was needed as the Breakers were pipped 84-82 by the Melbourne Tigers in a defeat that puts a severe dent in the club's hopes of an historic fourth straight championship.
The second straight road loss for the weekend, with the Breakers failing to connect on two shots at victory in the closing seconds, drops the club to 4-8 with all sorts of work needed to find their way back into the playoff picture.
They were pipped 95-91 in Perth on Friday night in similar circumstances.
Bruton, sadly, was a shadow of the player who has won six titles in 17 seasons in the league, and yesterday made just one of his eight shots, including six straight whiffs from three-point land. He could have erased it all with the final jumper of the game from a couple of paces back from the arc, but his game-winning attempt was blocked by outstanding Tigers import Mustapha Farrakhan.
The Breakers had played three largely positive quarters to lead 71-68 heading into the final term, but were held to just 11 points over the run home as tiredness from an exacting weekend kicked in. Not coincidentally, shots that had been sailing through the net hitherto started to draw iron, and the Tigers were able to escape with their first victory against the Kiwi club since Chris Anstey took charge.
The finale had plenty of drama, much like the Perth contest a couple of nights earlier.
Surging import Gary Wilkinson, who topped the Breakers' scoring with 20 points to go with six rebounds, nailed a corner jumper that looked like it was going to put the visitors into an 83-82 lead with just 20 seconds left.
But Wilkinson had a toe on the three-point line and the shot counted for just two, knotting the scores at 82-82.
The Breakers, bizarrely, then elected to foul Farrakhan rather than trust their defence, and when the on-fire American made one of two from the stripe, it came down to the Kiwis having to make shots. They couldn't, Tom Abercrombie missing a good look and then Bruton's miracle attempt snuffed out by Farrakhan's long arms.
They are now somewhere between a rock and a hard place, with the ominous Perth Wildcats, whom they've lost to twice already, up next at Vector on Friday night.
They face the very real prospect of heading into the Christmas break at 4-9, with their playoff hopes in tatters.
At least Wilkinson is coming back to his best form, Big Red going seven-of-14 from the floor and three-of-six from deep as he posted a second straight standout display.
Abercrombie finished with 18 points, three boards and two assists, but he had just two points after the halftime break, while Reuben Te Rangi was the other big positive with 11 points in just 15 minutes off the bench. Mika Vukona added eight points, 10 boards and three assists, but missed a key put-back late that he'd normally make with his eyes closed.
Farrakhan was brilliant for the Tigers as he made nine of his 10 shots, while Boomer Mark Worthington shaded his power forward battle with Vukona as he knocked down 21 points on eight-of-16 shooting and added four boards, two steals and a block.
"It's pretty gutting really," assistant coach Paul Henare said of yet another narrow defeat. "We've made adjustments, we've made some strides, and we've put ourselves in a position to win several times this year but we're just not getting the job done and that's really disappointing.
"Though we're getting better and making strides we still need to get results. We don't want to leave it too late
Henare also defended the decision to foul Farrakhan late, and effectively hand the lead back to the Tigers inside the last 20 seconds
"It's one you can debate till the cows come home. But they had some guys on the floor we identified as pretty suspect at the foul-line. Before we fouled Farrakhan he was one-for-six from the line.
"It's do you wait it out and risk losing on the buzzer on the road, or do you put your destiny in your own hands and give yourself a chance to win the game? We got the desired result [he made one of two foul-shots] and had a pretty good look to take the lead with Tom's jump shot."