Make or break time for NZ Breakers' campaign
Today's game in Sydney should tell us a lot about the Breakers' prospects for turning this season around.
The threepeat champions of the Australian NBL find themselves in about as tight a spot as they've faced since they morphed from doormats into dominators - a situation exacerbated by an untimely injury to starting centre Alex Pledger.
At 4-9, their season is on the brink, lying as they do last in this eight-team league. They have 15 games to save their season and keep alive the quest for an historic fourth straight championship, and may have to win at least 10 of them.
In other words, they're about all out of wriggle room if they're to find a way to finish in the top four.
This afternoon (4pm tipoff, NZT) they face the Sydney Kings in an early dance of the desperates. The Breakers are on a three-game losing streak, and the Kings have dropped back-to-back games against the Wollongong Hawks.
Both teams need a win like Santa needs a day off.
But that's about where the similarities end. The Kings come in at full strength for the first time this season, with James Harvey back from injury and big man Cody Ellis finally returned from the US.
They have import Sam Young in form (averaging over 21 points a game since joining them late) and a couple of classy Aussies in AJ Ogilvy and Ben Madgen.
The Breakers, on the other hand, are short-handed and short on form and confidence. Pledger's absence with a sprained ankle is a major blow, and will force the under-sized Kiwis to play a lot of small ball.
American Gary Wilkinson will take Pledger's place as starting centre, and now would be as good a time as any for the Big Red of old to make a reappearance. Mika Vukona will have to play one out of the box to give the Breakers any chance. He and Wilkinson face a massive task, and must stay out of foul trouble.
Others will have to find ways to play better. Tom Abercrombie has to rebound, score and defend, Reuben Te Rangi will have extended minutes to showcase his developing game and guards Kerron Johnson, Corey Webster and CJ Bruton must score the ball.
But skill won't be enough. The Breakers will have to play with a passion, intensity and commitment that has been lacking for most of this campaign.
As Bruton noted before boarding the plane yesterday, it's time for the champions to start living up to the mottos that emblazon the walls at their training headquarters.
"Courage" is one of those club tenets, and the Breakers need to show a ton of it to have any hope of starting a run of four straight road games with the victory they so desperately need.
Sunday Star Times