Breakers playoff hopes dangling by a thread
A Rotnei Clarke masterpiece in Wollongong on Friday night has left the NZ Breakers needing a hoops miracle to qualify for this year's Australian NBL playoffs.
The threepeat champion Breakers really had to secure victory over a Hawks side down an import after Kevin Tiggs was ruled out with knee problems; instead they were gunned down by another sharpshooting display from point guard Clarke.
The Hawks victory, behind 28 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the former Butler University gunner, drops the Beakers to 9-13, needing to win their remaining six games on the trot, including Sunday's in Adelaide, to have any hope of a playoff appearance.
The Hawks improved to 10-13, and still have a sniff at the top four if things fall their way over the run home.
The Breakers will stay positive but the playoffs look well beyond this group who have struggled for consistency all season. After stringing together a quartet of strong offensive efforts in recent weeks, they fell off badly in this game, shooting just 39 percent from the floor and a woeful 29 from beyond the arc. They were also smashed 41-31 on the boards and gave up 15 offensive rebounds to the Hawks.
The Auckland club had no answer to the masterful Clarke who had nine points in the opening quarter and finished the game brilliantly after behind held scoreless through the second period.
Clarke had solid support from ex-Breaker Oscar Forman, with 13 points and five boards, and Dave Gruber, Tim Coenraad and Larry Davidson all chipped in with 10 points apiece as the Hawks ran away with the contest with 53 second-half points.
The Breakers were paced by 13 points (4/6 FG), 11 rebounds and four assists from Mika Vukona and 11 points on three-of-10 shooting from Corey Webster, but got little of note from the remainder of their squad.
Import point guard Kerron Johnson was a non-factor as he fouled out with over six minutes left with just three points (0/2 FG), no rebounds and a lone assist, while Tom Abercrombie was kept to just eight points on four-of-11 shooting and Gary Wilkinson snapped his hot scoring streak with a lacklustre seven points to go with 10 boards.
The Breakers had trailed by three after the first quarter and by five (30-35) at the half as they found themselves in the customary position of struggling to find their shooting touch on the road.
The Hawks extended their lead to as many as 13 early in the third quarter behind back-to-back triples from Clarke who rediscovered his shooting touch after his ice-cold third period.
Clarke, who had 10 points in the third quarter, looked like he had sent the home side into a 12-point lead at the final break when he easily beat Breakers veteran CJ Bruton backdoor for a layup.
But Bruton had the final say when he hit a pull-up, buzzer-beating triple from deep to reduce the margin to a much more respectable nine, and give his side a hint of momentum heading into the final stanza.
But the run they needed never came for the Breakers, and it was the Hawks who soared when it counted in a pretty defining victory.
Wollongong Hawks 88 (Rotnei Clarke 28, Oscar Forman 13, David Gruber 10, Tim Coenraad 10, Larry Davidson 10) NZ Breakers 68 (Mika Vukona 13, Corey Webster 11). 1Q: 19-16: HT: 35-30; 3Q: 61-52