'Grind-it-out' NZ Breakers dependent on D
OPINION: Time for a reality check Breakers fans – and critics. This is not the team you’ve become accustomed to watching over the previous two seasons.
At least not yet.
But that’s not to say that they're not still a quality outfit. Three straight wins since the opening Perth debacle attest to that, and there's no reason that won’t be extended to four against the Sydney Kings tomorrow night at the NSEC. While normal service has not exactly resumed, normal results have.
It’s the mark of a classy team when they can find ways to win while their game is still short of its best. That’s been the hallmark of the three-game streak the Breakers have gone on since being caught well and truly short by the Wildcats first up.
The back-to-back champions have yet to score more than 75 points this season. They’re shooting free-throws like the ball is made of concrete (56.5%), and their field-goal return is not a heck of a lot better (40.7%). Yet they’ve still found a way to win three of four while their offence has all the fluidity of mud.
Statistically, there’s a lot to be said about this achievement.
In the previous three seasons they won just two from 13 when scoring 75 points or less (one of those coming in the grand final decider against Cairns in 2011).
Translation: this is a tougher minded, grind-it-out team than we’ve seen since they’ve morphed into the class act of the Australian NBL.
The Breakers, since they put their championship-winning puzzle together, have always fancied themselves as a bit of a defensive force who could hurt you at both ends of the floor.
But the reality was they were a team with some quality defenders – Mika Vukona, Tom Abercrombie and Cedric Jackson their foremost exponents – who were able to sporadically put the squeeze on opponents. At times their pressure ‘D’ has resulted in a layup line for opponents. At others it’s done the opposite.
Over the last two, even three, seasons their defence would come and go in fits and spurts. But boy could they score the ball when they wanted to. That inevitably got them home to a lot more wins than their lock-down D.
But this year the formula has changed just a little, with some pretty dramatic results.
Silky Wilky, aka American centre Gary Wilkinson, has gone, replaced in the startling lineup by the 2.16m Alex Pledger. American Will Hudson has come in to take on Pledger’s backup role.
That, essentially, has been the only personnel change at the Breakers (familiar face Corey Webster also returned off his drugs ban to bolster the backcourt) but it’s resulted in a fairly dramatic style shift.
Wilkinson was a great offensive player with superb range. He would dart occasionally into the post to play with his back to the bucket, but was much more comfortable picking and popping to the perimeter for the open J.
Defensively Big Red was, well, willing, but it was certainly not his forte. Opposition centres tended to be productive while he was on them, partly because Wilkinson (2.05m) was a little undersized for the position and partly because he just wasn’t a great defender.
Pledger, with his length and inclination and quick feet for his size, is a very good defender. And Hudson, too, doesn’t mind mixing it physically in the paint.
At the other end both are strictly interior operators who like to make their moves to the hoop, rather than away from it. Pledger has points potential with his ability to finish above the rim, while Hudson is still finding his feet offensively with his new team.
But what has become clear is that Pledger, with his presence, is anchoring a much more effective defence this season.
The Chief has 14 blocks through the first four games to lead the league. By way of comparison, Wilkinson had 14 in the whole of last season.
He is also altering shots which is a stat not recorded, but widely recognised among hoops aficionados as being just as important as the swat. Plus his presence at the back enables the likes of Jackson, who leads the league in steals with 2.8 a game, to take a few more risks.
So as the Breakers search for their offensive groove – there were positive signs in Melbourne it’s not that far away – their defence has never been more important. Right now, it’s their safety net.
By scrapping away and keeping their opponents’ scores low – an average of 64 points over the last three games – they give themselves a great chance to win even while their offence is still muddled.
Put it this way, there aren’t too many teams around shooting 40 percent for the season who can boast a 3-1 record.
- © Fairfax NZ News