OPINION: You didn't have to look any further than Auckland's plush downtown arena last Friday night for a microcosm of this troubled Breakers season. When they were good they were pretty damn good, but when they were bad they stunk the house out.
And the sum total of another frustrating night for Breakers fans - 7597 of whom turned up for what was supposed to be a festive celebration - was that the bad bits outweighed the good bits, and a 71-62 defeat to the stellar Perth Wildcats ensued, dropping the threepeat champions from New Zealand to the second bottom rung of the ladder.
At 4-9 their season is on the verge of implosion. With four straight road games to come over the holiday period, starting with the December 29 visit to Sydney, some quick fixes need to be found to have any hope of mounting a late playoff push.
The good news for the Breakers is that there is still time to save their season. They have 15 games remaining and 10 more wins would get them back to .500, and a probable top-four finish. It's not an unachievable outcome for a club who last season ran off 16 consecutive victories.
But right now it looks a long way off.
On Friday night the Breakers started like extras from The Walking Dead, knocking down the first bucket of the game, then clunking 16 straight shots as they allowed Perth to storm to a 17-2 lead. Against an outfit as good as the now 12-1 Wildcats, that was as good as handing them the keys to the kingdom.
Yet after halftime the Breakers actually showed some fight and urgency, which only heightened the frustration from their first-half zombie impression. For seven minutes in the third quarter they actually held the Cats scoreless with the best pressure defence they've played all season.
Yes, it can be done when they put their minds to it.
Yet even then the inconsistencies shone through. While getting the stops, they could never quite string the scores together to cash in and eventually the correction came from the visitors. The result was a ninth defeat, which is just two short of the loss total from the previous two regular seasons combined.
The problems are manifest. Their defence and intensity is patchy at best. They should have been desperate as all hell on Friday, yet it was only after finding themselves 16 down at halftime that the switch was flicked. Too damn late.
They're also down a man in their rotation, have a few players out of form and low on confidence, and others struggling for physical fitness. One or two sit in both camps.
On Friday night they got next to nothing out of the five spot, and that's not good enough when you've got Alex Pledger and Gary Wilkinson manning the position. An early knock to his problem back didn't help Wilkinson's cause, it must be said.
And CJ Bruton appears to have lost his private one-on-one with Father Time. You would never count him out, but right now his contribution is minimal at a time when the Breakers need some spark in the two-guard spot.
Then there's Kerron Johnson. The import point guard's numbers are solid, but the young man who turned 23 only yesterday, is simply not able to provide the spark, impact or influence that characterised Cedric Jackson's spectacular two-year tenure.
The fact of the matter is the Breakers badly miss Jackson and the retired Dillon Boucher, and have been unable to replace their influence this season. The result has been a Jekyll 'n Hyde type transformation from dominant to spent force.
Coach Dean Vickerman was not hiding from the facts after yet another defeat. He understands that he has to find some answers pretty much immediately, and that they have to come with the same men who are simply not getting the job done at the moment.
"That was a series game on our home floor, and to not come out with absolute desperation to win is disappointing," he said. "We'll have a few days off now as a group, then we go reset it. We're on the road now, so our mindset, and our ability to be on the same page both offensively and defensively are where we've got to improve."
Friday night presented an abject lesson, said Vickerman, on where the Breakers have to get to. They were essentially bullied into submission by a Wildcats side who wanted it more, and duly won the effort areas. The visitors had 19 offensive rebounds, won the second-chance points 17-4 and harried their hosts into shooting 37 per cent from the floor, and a woeful 17 from beyond the arc.
"We went against a team that was just tough, and we've got to find an absolute toughness. It comes with your defence. If we play the defence we played in that second half, you create enough opportunities to score. It all comes back to the toughness in our defence," added Vickerman.
All is not lost. In Mika Vukona, they have a warrior who will fight till he drops. In Tom Abercrombie, they have a difference-maker if he can just figure that out. Johnson, too, pledges to be more assertive over the run home.
But the position they're now in, somewhere between a large rock and a very hard place, means that the margin for error is now all but gone. Mayor Len Brown may have a lot to contemplate over Christmas, but so too does his favourite team.
- © Fairfax NZ News