Top-two NBL finish now on cards for ‘ominous’ NZ Breakers after Cairns defeat

Top-two NBL finish now on cards for ‘ominous’ NZ Breakers after Cairns defeat

A gilt-edged National Basketball League play-off berth is now within reach for the New Zealand Breakers, and a former coach who won four championships with the Kiwi club believes that makes them a dangerous prospect indeed.

The Breakers’ chances of finishing second overall, and earning a direct route into a best-of-three semi-final series for which they would hold home advantage, received a major boost with Monday night’s home loss by the Cairns Taipans to the Adelaide 36ers to conclude the penultimate round of the regular season.

The Sixers’ 99-96 win at the Cairns Convention Centre, behind a game-high 27 points from forward Antonius Cleveland, puts the Breakers in the thick of the race for second. An unlikely runner-up finish is now theirs – if they are good enough.

The Taipans’ loss drops them to 17-10, with their final regular season game a tough assignment at the Perth Wildcats on Friday night. Their best finish would be 18-10.

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The 16-10 Breakers (currently third) conclude their campaign with visits to the Illawarra Hawks (Thursday) and Brisbane Bullets (Saturday). Both are highly winnable contests for a full-strength Kiwi line-up, with the 3-23 Hawks sitting at the bottom of the table and 8-19 Bullets just one place above them.

The Breakers’ vastly superior scoring percentage will see them own any tie over the Snakes. So, two wins will secure the Kiwi club second place. One could even be good enough, should the Taipans go down to the 14-12 Wildcats who are also in the thick of the playoff race.

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Dean Vickerman on his old Breakers side: ‘Their commitment on the defensive end is phenomenal.’

Under the NBL’s new format, six teams qualify for the playoffs. The top two advance directly to the semi-finals, where they have home advantage. Third meets fourth, with the winner in the semifinals, and the loser meets the winner of a fifth v sixth sudden-death contest for the final spot in the top four.

And the Breakers look ominous ahead of their first post-season tilt since 2017-18, according to former coach Dean Vickerman who was part of all four championships the Kiwi club won between 2010-15. Vickerman’s Melbourne side eliminated the Kiwi club in a semi-final in their final play-off game of 2018.

United saw a five-game winning streak snap as the Breakers cruised to an 80-74 victory Saturday night at Spark Arena. He told Stuff it was hard not to be impressed by what Mody Maor had achieved in the wake of their two-year Covid nightmare.

“It was their defense,” Vickerman said of an outstanding second half from the hosts. “They took it to another level, were still aggressive in their coverage but came out of it a little quicker which made us pick up the basketball and we couldn’t move it the way we wanted to. It created turnovers and we couldn’t get quality shots for Chris Goulding.

“Credit to Mody and his staff. They do a good job with their physicality. When we got into handover action, the times they blew it up with their bodies was really good.”

Vickerman’s reverence contrasts sharply with the whining of Sydney Kings coach Chase Buford, who complained after a win at Spark that the Breakers’ physical defense made him think they were “playing the All Blacks”.

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Jarrell Brantley goes up for the shot in the New Zealand Breakers’ NBL win over Melbourne United at Spark.

Vickerman felt the Breakers were a different beast with all hands on deck, with Barry Brown Jr (groin) and Izayah Le’afa (back) the latest to make it off the injury list.

“When we played them in Christchurch, Brown didn’t play. When they have Barry and Le’afa, who also had a nice match, you start with Tommy [Abercrombie] and [Rayan] Rupert and you have Brown and Le’afa coming off the bench…that’s as good as it gets in the league in the guard rotation.

“When you add Rob [Loe] with the effect he had, it’s just the quality of their roster and their aggressiveness. The way they play and their willingness to make the extra pass and share the ball makes them difficult.”

Vickerman then told Stuff that he believed the Breakers had “a lot more to give”.

“Shall [McDowell-White] didn’t have his best game (zero points on 0-of=8 shooting), but he led them phenomenally. He’s just a problem in the ball, with the things he can do and getting everyone else involved.

“But it’s the defensive end for me. They knuckle down, they’re physical, they’re locked into Mody’s system, and they’re well-researched. We tried to run plays to get Chris open, and they were just too physical to let him get a good shot. Their commitment to that goal is phenomenal.”

The NBL’s race for second*

17-10 Cairns Taipans: @Perth Wildcats, Friday, 11.30pm NZT,

16-10 NZ Breakers: @ Illawarra Hawks, Thursday 9.30pm; @ Brisbane Bullets, Saturday 10pm

* if teams end in a tie, points percentage is decisive. Breakers are 107.8; Cairns 102.9.

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