NZ Breakers face defining double-header trip
Mika Vukona calls it time to "pack the lunch pail and go to work". It's a nice summation of what's shaping as a defining weekend in the Breakers' Australian NBL season.
The champions of the past three seasons are at Wollongong on Friday night and Adelaide on Sunday afternoon in a road double that has make or break written all over it.
At 9-12 the Breakers need wins like Brendon McCullum needs to put his feet up. They still have a chance of catching the 10-10 Sydney Kings (4th) and 12-10 Melbourne Tigers (3rd), but have little if any room for error.
A weekend split is the minimum requirement and two road wins would be just what the doctor ordered for a Breakers outfit that has to find a way to shake its road wobbles.
The Breakers are 3-8 away from home this season, and that's a big turnaround from their dominant road feats of the past three seasons.
Somehow they've got to flick the switch this weekend.
"It's huge, man," Vukona said yesterday. "The teams we needed to lose lost last weekend. We were great last week with the win, and we need this big time if we want to move up.
"It's about going in focused. That 20-point win against Cairns will give us a big confidence boost. We've just got to go out there and play the game, pack that lunch pail and just go to work."
The Breakers have won all three games against the Wollongong Hawks this season, but hit them for the fourth time on somewhat of a roll. Wollongong have won their past three games by a combined 55 points, rolling past Sydney (away), Townsville (home) and Adelaide (home) with ease.
"They're pretty much the hottest team in the league right now, and it's going to be a massive challenge there," coach Dean Vickerman said.
"[Imports] Rotnei Clarke and Kevin Tiggs are both playing great basketball and our ability to contain them is going to be crucial. Plus, they've got shooters all over the floor."
The Breakers are in pretty slick shooting form themselves, going at 57 per cent from the floor in a well-balanced 96-78 home victory over the Taipans last Friday.
The last time the sides clashed it was a shootout – the Breakers prevailing 106-101 at the NSEC – but Vickerman feels like more intrinsic qualities will be needed, both in Wollongong and then Adelaide.
"We're shooting the ball really well ourselves, and it's about our defence this weekend. Can we keep teams to a good total?"
To do that they're going to have to lock in on key men in Wollongong and prevent a huge Adelaide side from taking it to the rim at will, as they did last time out when they blew the Breakers out at home.
The Breakers do have Gary Wilkinson in the form of his career, but too often on the road this season the supporting cast has come up short. That can't happen this weekend.
"We've had some close ones on the road and haven't quite got there," Vickerman said. "Both these games are going to be tightly contested and our ability to execute down the stretch will be important."
Casey Frank remains the backup big man for the Breakers, with Alex Pledger not due back on court till next week and probably three weeks away from being considered for a playing return.