It's the hard way, or the highway for Breakers
As the Breakers gathered for their final huddle at their final practice of the week yesterday, centre Gary Wilkinson barked: "We need to learn to love the things that are hard."
That, in a nutshell, is the task for the Breakers in back-to-back Aussie NBL games against the in-form Sydney Kings, starting tonight in downtown Auckland, and continuing Saturday week back across the ditch.
They are games that will almost certainly define this rollercoaster campaign of the threepeat champions from New Zealand. It is what they commonly call make-or-break time.
At 7-11 the Breakers are hanging in the playoff race by their fingertips. At 9-8 the piping hot Kings hold the fourth spot that is probably the only realistic target for the Kiwi club.
"We're talking about this as our playoff series to get to the playoffs," said coach Dean Vickerman yesterday. "To beat Sydney in a series right now is huge. That's the way we're treating it and we hope our fans treat it the same way."
Wilkinson's words were well chosen. The task is indeed difficult for the Breakers who, as previously reported, will again be without crocked centre Alex Pledger who is battling bone spurs in his ankle.
That sees veteran Tall Black Casey Frank suit up for his fourth straight game in relief of Pledger, and Wilkinson once again carry a massive load against the imposing Kings frontline anchored by Boomers big man AJ Ogilvy.
"He matches up well with Sydney," said Vickerman of his American veteran who had a season-high 31 points last time against the Kings. "They like to keep Ogilvy near the charge circle, and [Wilkinson] has the ability to stretch him out to the perimeter. He had his best game in Sydney, so it puts more responsibility on Gary, though Casey will come in and back him up and also back up Mika [Vukona]."
Wilkinson told his team-mates in the huddle that the time had come for them to "embrace" the challenge they faced, and not be daunted by it.
Vukona found himself nodding furiously when Wilkinson vocalised the exact thoughts running through his head.
"You've got to man," said Vukona yesterday. "When he said that I thought it's so true for this team. Every game now is a playoff game for us, and I think that's when we play the best and that's how we need to approach this game."
The Breakers are going to have to play close to a complete game to topple a Kings side that has won four on the bounce, including an away-home double over the second-placed Adelaide 36ers.
In Ben Madgen, former NBA star Sam Young, Tom Garlepp, Ogilvy and import guard Charles Carmouche they have a quality starting five. Long-range bomber James Harvey, new recruit Cody Ellis and the dangerous Brad Hill provide the chief bench firepower.
Vukona says they're a well balanced team, with inside presence and dangerous spot-up shooters, and nominates former Indiana Pacer Young as their X-factor man.
Somehow the Breakers have to up the defensive ante after giving up 50 points in the paint in the 106-101 win over the Hawks.
"They have so many guys who can score the basketball, staying true to our team rules is more important than locking down individuals," said Vickerman. "The hardest thing is playing defence together, helping your team-mate, diving on the floor, boxing out, and everyone chipping in. Doing the hard things is going to be important."
Wilkinson noted a certain quality that Frank is now adding to the Breakers. "He brings little bit of what we lost with Dilly [Dillon Boucher], a little bit of meanness, a little bit more of that aggression we need," said Wilkinson. Vukona says he feels "comfortable" knowing Frank has his back.
The Breakers need that tonight. Vukona pledges to bring "something special" from here on in. But he needs help. He needs team-mates "loving the hard".