NZ Breakers' ANBL playoff hopes take King-hit
The Breakers won't admit it, but it's hard to see how the threepeat Aussie NBL champions can find a way back after a Saturday night heartbreaker in Sydney.
It was a night that promised so much for the resurgent New Zealand club but in the end delivered so little as their playoff hopes suffered a near mortal blow.
The Breakers wasted a 33-point offensive explosion from import Gary Wilkinson and a nine-point lead late in the third term to stumble to a 98-96 defeat to the Kings that wedges them firmly between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
At 8-12, and chasing the now 10-9 fourth-placed Kings, the Breakers are going to have to be close to perfect from here on in, with eight games to make up a significant chunk of territory.
It could all have been so different had the Breakers managed to harness a golden third quarter from Wilkinson and ride it home. But a crucial technical foul to the fiery red-head late in the period appeared to take the wind out of his sails, and the Kings were able to eke out a rare victory over the Kiwi club.
Wilkinson was magnificent with a game-high 33 points (12/19 FG, 5/7 3PT), seven rebounds and two blocks. At one stage in a red-hot third quarter he knocked down four straight three-pointers to put the Breakers in the box seat.
But then Wilkinson's emotions boiled over, and it appeared to affect his team as the big man was benched and the Kings were able to finish the half with a 10-2 momentum-changing run.
"You could feel the tension," assistant coach Paul Henare said.
"There were times we lost our heads a little bit and we paid for it. It was one of those high pressure situations you look back on and think maybe we could have done a better job of keeping our cool."
Wilkinson was unapologetic for his emotional display.
"I always play with passion and energy and sometimes when you play that way it doesn't turn out positively, but I'm not going to change the way I play," he said.
"It was just an amazing display," Henare said of Wilkinson's at times sensational shooting.
The Breakers still had a royal chance to snatch victory late in the piece, but could manage just two points over the last 2:43 as Kerron Johnson's foul-line jumper with eight seconds left drew nothing but air.
Johnson had a strong game with 18 points (8/14 FG), 10 assists and just one turnover, but his lack of confidence in his jump shot was evident when he badly misfired on what would have been the winner.
But questions could be asked about what the badly out-of-sorts CJ Bruton was doing on the floor so late (Corey Webster played just 13 minutes) and why Wilkinson saw such little ball in the final quarter.
"I think we settled a little bit," Henare said of his team's finish.
"Everything was an outside jumper and Sam Young did a good job of locking in on Tommy [Abercrombie]. We got some shots we'd drawn up but just didn't make them, and didn't quite execute to perfection which is what you need under pressure in that situation."
Henare remained adamant his team could still force their way into the playoffs.
"There's a lot of talk about that we're going to struggle, and yes it's going to be hard. But we truly believe we're in, I'm not going to say a good position, but a position where we can still make it."
The Breakers' next game is against the Cairns Taipans at Vector Arena on Friday. Fairfax NZ