Pledger's loss ramps up pressure on NZ Breakers
Just what Breakers coach Dean Vickerman didn't need.
Right when he's looking for his under-pressure ANBL outfit to seize control of their destiny by returning to the pressure defence that was a hallmark of their championship run, he loses a key man for tomorrow's visit to the Sydney Kings.
Starting centre Alex Pledger has been ruled out for the first of four straight trips across the Tasman after spraining his left ankle in a Boxing Day scrimmage, and that leaves the struggling Kiwi club - last on the standings with a 4-9 record - severely undersized as they chase a crucial victory.
The Breakers, on a three-game losing skid, are wedged firmly between a rock and a hard place, likely requiring at least 10 wins from their last 15 games to sneak into the playoffs and keep alive their shot at an historic fourth straight title.
That task just got even harder with their main rim-protector and low-post target now ruled out for what could be up to three or four weeks. American Gary Wilkinson will slot in to the starting centre's role, and he and power forward Mika Vukona are going to carry major rebounding and defensive loads in Pledger's absence.
The Breakers have been short of their usual standards at both ends of the floor, but Vickerman had liked what he saw when his side amped up its defence in the second half of the 62-71 home defeat to the Perth Wildcats on December 13.
The coach wants more of that pressure defence to spark a turnaround as the club looks to turn a run of close defeats - eight of the Breakers' nine losses have been by 10 points or less - into much-needed victories.
"We're in a situation where we can't sit back defensively, so we've really amped up our pressure during the break," said the rookie head coach. "Over the last few years we've talked about sacrifice for your team-mates and club, and at times that desperation just hasn't been there this year.
"But it's been forced upon us and we need to play that highest level intensity defence a lot more often. It's a gamble, but playing with that intensity is better than sitting back right now." Pledger's absence presents an opportunity for a fit-again Wilkinson to step his game up after battling through back problems for much of this season. It's a challenge that Vickerman hopes will bring out the best in not just his sharpshooting big man, but the entire squad.
"We need eight or nine guys playing well on the same night, and we haven't had that consistency so far," he said. "I've got to learn how to get the best out of people, and define their roles a little more." So far the Breakers are wasting a tour-de-force of a season from Vukona and Vickerman's challenge is to get the rest of his players operating with the passion and intensity the Tall Blacks captain is.
Veteran back-courter CJ Bruton, Wilkinson, backup guard Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie are all going to need to deliver on a more sustained basis for the Breakers to have any chance tomorrow.
The Kings won't be easy. At 5-6 and coming off back-to-back defeats to the Wollongong Hawks, they have their own issues.
But they certainly have the talent deserving of the Breakers' full respect. Former NBA star Sam Young is averaging 21.9 points in the four games since his belated arrival, while fellow import Charles Carmouche (14ppg,), big man AJ Ogilvy (14ppg, 10.3rpg) and sharpshooter Bern Madgen (11.9ppg) are all capable performers. The late arrival of athletic forward Cody Ellis from the US also boosts the bench depth.
Vickerman picks it to be a clash of playoff intensity, but has targeted this and the visit to Melbourne on January 10 as must-win games from a road haul that also includes Adelaide (Jan 4) and runaway leaders Perth (Jan 17).
Without Pledger, a tough road back just got even steeper. Something special may be needed tomorrow.