Alex Pledger back to anchor Breakers' defence
The return of big man Alex Pledger will give the NZ Breakers a much-needed boost as they look to equal their record Australian NBL win streak tomorrow night at the NSEC.
Pledger sat out today's scrimmage as he continued to rest the ankle he tweaked last Thursday in the home victory over Wollongong but confirmed he would be fine to play whatever role was required tomorrow against the third-placed Sydney Kings.
The 15-3 Breakers are on a seven-game winning streak dating back to a December 13 home victory over Cairns. They can equal their club record mark (set during the 2010-11 season) against Sydney and surpass it on Saturday when they cross the ditch to take on the Wollongong Hawks.
A win over Sydney tomorrow night would also bring up the Breakers' 100th home victory since they entered the league back in 2003-04.
Having Pledger back will help those prospects after he was sidelined for Sunday's 84-66 success in Adelaide dealing with an ankle he hurt early against the Hawks, but which only blew up in the aftermath.
"It's pretty good," said Pledger after the week's only practice. "I didn't train today as a precaution, but it's feeling pretty good and barring me doing something stupid between now and the game I should be good to go."
Coach Andrej Lemanis was guarded about Pledger's likely workload, saying only they hope to get "some minutes" out of him, but veteran bench leader Dillon Boucher said having the 2.16m monster back anchoring the defence would be important.
More so given the Sydney Kings come to town with centre Ian Crosswhite the ANBL's newly minted player of the week on the back of a remarkable 27 points and 13 rebounds, where the big lefty went 11-of-12 from the field.
"Any time you have Pledge back on court is always a bonus," said Boucher. "We did all right with Chief not out there, and Will [Hudson] has been playing well, but with Crosswhite in the frame it will be nice to bring big Pledge back in and have him bang Crosswhite round a bit and make his shots a little tougher."
Pledger leads the league in blocked shots (nearly double his nearest challenger) and is second in offensive rebounding during a season where he's averaging a solid 9.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Lemanis calls Pledger and Hudson his "two-headed monster" at centre and reckons between them they make up the best five man in the league. With Hudson going at 9.2 points and 5.5 boards a game as he mostly job-shares with Pledger, they are certainly a daunting combination for opponents to handle.
"If you look at our numbers combined they're pretty damn good," noted Pledger. "We have different strengths and weaknesses, but we're both pretty good defenders, both pretty good rebounders and both pretty tough to deal with around the basket.
"I think we're definitely the best one-two punch in that position in the league."
Pledger said it had not been easy to break a personal run of 85 consecutive games to rest an ankle that puffed up a bit following the Hawks home game and the travel.
"It's pretty tough to watch, especially when we're on a nice win streak and I personally have been playing pretty well the last three games.
"But these things happen, and it made it a little easier when we saw [Adelaide centre Luke] Schenscher was in street clothes.
"I was there if required but luckily the guys put in a really good performance and we got a good win."
Mika Vukona reckoned Pledger had overcome a mental hurdle the way he came back so strongly after rolling the ankle early in last Thursday's NSEC clash against the Hawks. He finished with 12 points, eight boards and a pair of blocks.
Pledger said he'd been satisfied with all off his efforts in the new year, where he's averaging 12 points and nearly eight rebounds a game.
"Since the new year ticked over I've been pretty consistent, and consistency, especially on the road, was probably my biggest hurdle," said Pledger. "But in the first away game against Wollongong and then against Townsville I thought I was pretty solid and made a step in the right direction. I continued that at home against Wollongong and hopefully will tomorrow night as well."
Leamnis admitted today that fatigue was a real factor as his team battled through the most intensive period of their schedule. They've played six games over the last 23 days, five of them on the road.
And this week continues apace, with the Kings tomorrow night, an early flight on Friday to Sydney and then a Saturday late afternoon date with the Hawks.
"Our depth is helping us get through this period, and people have stepped up and carried the load in different ways, as we need to again with a Thursday-Saturday schedule. We need to spread that load across all 10 players," said Lemanis.
"But we're in good mental space at the moment with the way we're playing and being able to get wins during this period. You're tired, it's just the way it is and you go out and play and deal with it and can't let it affect the way you play."
Tip-off tomorrow is 7.40pm and, as of this afternoon, the game had not sold out.