NZ Breakers cock-a-hoop about title chances

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 02/02/2014

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Nine games remain. Nine wins - that's how the resurgent and re-energised Breakers are looking at their run home in this Australian National Basketball League.

It's amazing the difference a couple of offensive explosions can make to a team's psyche. Suddenly these Breakers are buoyant and confident, and they're not about to set any ceilings on what can and can't be achieved between here and the end of the regular season.

There's still a ton of work to do for the threepeat champs from New Zealand if they're to have any shot at staying in the mix for an historic fourth straight title.

At 8-11 the Breakers lie sixth on the standings, still some way back of the fourth-placed Kings (9-9) whom they've just thumped for the second straight time this season.

But things can change quickly in this tight, tense league. The Breakers and Kings meet again this Saturday night in Sydney and if the Kiwis make it three-from-three for the year, suddenly there will be just a game in it, with still a long way to go.

Kings coach Shane Heal appeared to have it all figured out when he told reporters after Thursday night's 105-87 defeat to the Breakers - their seventh loss in the last eight matchups against the Kiwi club - that his team still controlled its own destiny.

"We're in a really good position," Heal said. "We play New Zealand at home and then Wollongong at home, and they're two games we expect to win. Of our last 10 games we only play three teams above us, and two out of those are at home. Our destiny is in our own hands - we're playing teams we feel we're capable of beating." Breakers coach Dean Vickerman was asked if he'd figured out his remaining schedule in terms of a likely win-loss ratio. No, was the short answer.

"I haven't put a number on it," Vickerman said. "We came into [the Sydney] game saying we have a chance to win 17 games. A while back I was guilty of identifying ‘must-win' games, and against Adelaide and Perth we didn't perform so well maybe because they weren't ‘must-win' games.

"Right now we say every game is a chance to get to 17 and that's what we're heading for." The Breakers certainly appear to have found their groove. After shooting 56 per cent in a 106-101 victory over Wollongong at the NSEC, they went at 57 per cent in a 105-87 win over the Kings that may have been their best all-round performance of the season.

There were six players in double-figures, the ball was moving like a hot potato, the defence was dialled in, the rebound contest was won and there was a mammoth 32 points from the bench unit. It was like there was a team of Mika Vukonas out there.

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The Breakers have tagged these back-to-back games against the Kings as their "playoffs before the playoffs". The trick will be to retain the intensity that was a hallmark of Thursday night's effort in front of 6152 fans at Vector.

Vickerman says that's all on him. "We have to manage the load of practice really well," he said. "I've been guilty at different times of over-training a little bit. Now we're into this period we've got to say ‘what's the perfect load to peak for every game?'.

"In the playoffs you rest a little longer, you maximise the training time. I've got to do that really well, and make sure these guys are peaking for every game, that they're not tired and they feel great going into every game."

The Breakers may also have caught an unlikely break. Alex Pledger's ankle injury has given Casey Frank an unexpected last shot at this league, and the big man has responded beautifully. He plays hard and smart, he passes well, and he possesses a hard edge. His team-mates reckon he's bringing Dillon Boucher-like qualities.

Turns out that's exactly what this team needed. And will continue to need.

"We can win that series in Sydney if we're good enough," Vickerman added.

"We've looked at it and said ‘yep, that fourth spot is up for grabs' and if we really want it we'll go over there and play really well."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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