Breakers close on playoff spot with Sydney win
At the door tonight, the Breakers handed out fortune cookies to mark the Chinese New Year. If they'd cared to crack their own open it might have read: "Your future is looking considerably brighter."
That was the upshot of a 105-87 victory over the Sydney Kings at Auckland's Vector Arena that casts a decidedly fresh perspective on the Australian NBL's playoff picture.
Suddenly, if you're a Breakers fan, this thing might just be do-able. There's still some work required, but at 8-11, in pursuit of the 9-9 fourth-placed Kings, the threepeat champions from New Zealand have reason to feel a degree of optimism with still nine games remaining.
More so when you think next game out is also against the Kings, back in Sydney next Saturday night. If the Breakers could back this up with a third straight win over the Sydneysiders this season, there would be just a half-game in it.
These are desperate times for the Breakers as they chase an historic fourth straight title, and tonight's performance reflected that as they posted just their second back-to-back win of the season, and also topped the century mark for the second straight time.
"We had our best week of practice for the whole year. Sometimes it doesn't translate into the game but I was extremely pleased the momentum we built throughout the week showed in the game," coach Dean Vickerman said afterwards.
"The leaders of the team were outstanding. They really rose up in practice and took some initiative to pull the group in. We were up that 18-20 assist mark, sharing the basketball, and I thought our team defence was good as well."
It was impressive stuff from the Breakers who got six players into double-figures and produced the sort of polished all-round display that was a hallmark of their championship seasons. They shot a stellar 57 percent from the floor, won the rebound count by 10 and had a mammoth 32-5 edge in points off the bench.
They led from the latter stages of the opening quarter and never looked in danger of coughing up an advantage that grew and grew until garbage time late in proceedings.
Team leader Mika Vukona had pledged "something" special from here on in, and he and his team-mates obliged. Tom Abercrombie had a superb game with 20 points on eight-of-11 shooting to go with five boards, two assists and a pair of blocks.
"We knew this was almost a make-or-break game and we approached it like a playoff game," added Abercrombie. "We wanted to bring that intensity, take things up another level and carry on the good momentum we were able to generate from last week."
Gary Wilkinson, back thumping his chest and making big plays, wasn't far behind Abercrombie with 17 points (7/13 FG), four rebounds and two assists, while the emerging Kerron Johnson produced another standout display with 17 points (7/14 FG), seven boards, three assists and two steals.
Vukona, of course, played his part with 15 points (4/6 FG), six boards, three assists and a pair of steals, while the efforts off the bench of Reuben Te Rangi and Casey Frank were massive.
Te Rangi missed just one of seven shots as he poured in 14 points, including a perfect two for two from distance, while Frank - a keeper, surely - had 11 points (5/7 FG), five rebounds and three assists in another high-energy display.
The Kings leaned heavily on their best class acts, but ex-NBA player Sam Young (29 points) and Ben Madgen (20) could not do enough to keep their team in the contest.
The Breakers began with a swish and a roar, the shots dropping pretty much from the off as they bolted out of the blocks to lead 29-19 at the end of the opening quarter and by a decisive 19 (55-36) at the major break.
It was an impressive first two quarters by the Breakers who pushed up and created the tempo with their defence, and their offence flowed beautifully behind big first-half efforts from Vukona (13pts, 3reb), Johnson (10pts, 4reb) and Wilkinson (9pts).
When the lead stayed big (17 points) by the end of the third, the Kings were done, and all that remained was to see how close they would get. Not very, was the answer.
NZ Breakers 105 (Tom Abercrombie 20, Gary Wilkinson 17, Kerron Johnson 17, Mika Vukona 15, Reuben Te Rangi 14, Casey Frank 11) Sydney Kings 87 (Sam Young 29, Ben Madgen 20, Charles Carmouche 16, AJ Ogilvy 12). 1Q: 27-19; HT: 55-36; 3Q: 82-65.