Breakers staying focused after victory in Sydney
There was barely a pat on the back, let alone the popping of a cork, for the New Zealand Breakers as the New Year closed in.
Sure, the struggling threepeat Aussie NBL champions had ticked off a gritty 99-83 victory over the Kings in Sydney on Sunday afternoon to halt a three-game losing skid, and improve their record to 5-9.
The improbable playoff push remains possible.
Reason enough for elation, if not celebration, you would think. More so when you factor in they did it without 2.13-metre centre Alex Pledger (ankle sprain) and with a lineup that had size the Smurfs wouldn't have found intimidating.
But behind a fabulous 31 points from rejuvenated bit American Gary Wilkinson, a sniper-like 21 from an improving Kerron Johnson and a bunch of cameo efforts from the supporting cast, the fading champs did enough to get up on the back of a strong (36-point) final quarter.
Assistant coach Paul Henare said it was the sort of performance that suggested his men had finally responded to the adversity that's been a constant for most of this campaign.
"At a crossroads you can go one of two ways - you can accept the challenge head-on, or you can fold and start making excuses," he said.
"I'm glad we took the right turn. We decided to accept that challenge.
"This season has brought its frustrations and challenges but our confidence as a group internally has never wavered. That's also a factor in how we played [against the Kings]. Not once have we started to doubt ourselves."
Henare said Wilkinson had simply responded to a massive challenge in the only way he knows, but he also reserved high praise for Johnson who showed signs he's starting to figure things out in his rookie year as a pro.
"I'm just happy to see him have a great game," said Henare of an effort that saw the young point guard earn 13 trips to the free-throw line.
"He's actually had a really good couple of weeks of practice since that Perth loss. He almost called himself out and said he really needs to step up his game.
"I've seen that the last couple of weeks on the practice floor and it's good to see it flow on to the heat of battle."
The other pleasing aspect was the fact the Breakers still found a way even with starters Tom Abercrombie and Mika Vukona both sitting out much of the first half with foul trouble.
"The guys who came off the bench kept us in the game, and even got the lead," he said.
"To do that without Tom and Mika was a great result, and those two were able to get some rest and play big minutes in the second half."
But the Breakers still have their challenges.
Predictably, with only two legitimate big men, they struggled on the boards and giving up 19 offensive rebounds should have the alarm bells ringing with the huge Adelaide 36ers up next.
"At the end of the third quarter we had 16 total rebounds," Henare reflected.
"I don't think I've ever seen it so low. It's a concern, and improvement has to be made. But to get absolutely demolished on the boards and still get the win, that's another positive."
However, as Henare confirmed, there was barely a high five exchanged in the wake of a desperately needed win. With a trip to the second-placed 36ers (a side they've already lost to twice at home) on Saturday, they will have to play even better with Pledger expected to still be out.
"Before the game we spoke about how we had 15 games [left], and all we've done is tick off one of those," Henare said.
"All we're focused on now is Adelaide. We look at how we can beat Adelaide, then worry about the rest afterwards."