New Zealand Breakers
New Zealand appeared to be playoff roadkill not long ago, run over by a rampaging Adelaide squad and left at the side of the road by the league it once dominated.
Not so fast.
Somehow, some way, the Breakers squeezed into the playoffs on the back of five consecutive wins, and they didn’t stop handing out ass kickings there.
To begin its semi finals series with Melbourne, the reigning champs rolled into Hisense Arena and completely outplayed this season’s championship favourites on their own floor.
Melbourne looked tentative and shaky in the opening stages, while New Zealand exuded energy and confidence, moving with purpose, making play after play.
The Breakers limited United’s scoring and crashed the offensive glass like men possessed.
Cedric Jackson was an injection of energy and general hub of activity, Thomas Abercrombie was Prius-like with his quiet efficiency, and Alex Pledger joined Mika Vukona in a night long glass eating marathon.
United presented New Zealand with a greater challenge in game two at Vector Arena. Yet when the fourth quarter rolled around and the chips were down, the Breakers went into nuclear mode. Melbourne couldn’t reach for their radiation suits quickly enough.
New Zealand nailed everything in the final term while putting the clamps on United’s scoring. The visitors entered panic mode early and threw up numerous terrible shots that stood little to no chance of falling.
The Breakers reminded Melbourne that they are champions until proven otherwise, while United did little to suggest that the NBL’s tectonic plates have truly shifted since last season.
Mika Vukona means everything to the New Zealand Breakers.
Excluding a brief stint in enemy colours, Vukona has been with New Zealand since the club’s inception in 2003. He’s the Breakers’ rock, their reliable elder, their calming presence.
He’s essentially the uncle of the team, but in a different mould to that typical uncle who sneaks sips of whisky to the kids on Christmas day.
He calms his teammates down when they’re too high, and lifts them up when they’re down. He encourages effort, energy and emotion while discouraging trash talking and showboating.
Most importantly, Vukona leads by example.
During game one against Melbourne, Mika Vukona was all over the offensive glass like seagulls on a chip. He locked up Daniel Kickert and threw away the key. Vukona could also be seen stealing the ball, running the length of the court and dishing it off for an easy layup. He did so twice, as if to emphasise United’s unravelling.
Game two brought more of the same as Vukona’s Breakers worked their way to a stunning 2-0 sweep of top seeded Melbourne.
Players like Vukona are crucial in any team’s quest to win a championship.
No wonder he’s already won five.
On the day of Game Two between Illawarra and Perth, all signs pointed towards a Wildcats whitewash.
The Hawks had lost all five clashes with Perth this season and league MVP Kevin Lisch was sporting street clothes and a moonboot.
To make matters worse, club captain Oscar Forman was averaging 2.25 points on 19% shooting over his previous four games.
Forman was brining a sizeable slump into a do-or-die clash which doubled as the Hawks’ biggest game of the season.
When Rob Beveridge asked Forman to stand and deliver during his 450th game, he did just that. Forman rose from the bench, and in the process, rose to the occasion.
Like Michael Moore entering the lobby of a multinational corporation, Forman wasted little time making his presence felt. The South Australian consistently made ballsy threes – and sprinkled in several crucial rebounds – as Illawarra washed Perth off the court with a sea of buckets.
Forman finished with a team high 21 points on 7-12 shooting and was one of the primary forces keeping Illawarra’s foot on the pedal, and on Perth’s throats.
How the mighty have fallen.
Melbourne United were the number one team and sexy championship pick throughout the majority of the regular season.
Yet they were a deer in the headlights to start Game One of the playoffs.
United aren’t blessed with a single NBL championship player. Meanwhile New Zealand could be forgiven if they used one of their Dr John Raschke Trophies as a door stop or a backscratcher, they have that many of them lying around.
This difference in championship experience could not have been more evident during game one, as New Zealand jumped out to a whopping 23-6 lead and outclassed United in almost every aspect of the game in the process.
Melbourne were consistently punished on the offensive glass, while Cedric Jackson again got the better of Stephen Holt and Daniel Kickert was at Mika Vukona’s mercy all game long.
United arrived in New Zealand for Game Two with some renewed vigour as Kickert bounced back and Goulding filled it up from distance. But it wasn’t enough. They simply couldn’t handle the heat when New Zealand threw the kitchen sink at them, dropping 33 points in the fourth quarter.
Proud of this team. I've never played with a better bunch of guys!! Disappointing finish to what will be a season I will always remember.
— Daniel Kickert (@kicks14) February 20, 2016
When Lisch hurt his knee during Illawarra’s season opener, the injury was more poorly timed than it was severe.
However, his ankle injury during Game One of the Hawks’ semi finals series was both.
"You never want to see a great guy and great player go down… Sometimes sport can break your heart" – Trevor Gleeson on Kevin Lisch.
— Perth Wildcats (@PerthWildcats) February 19, 2016
Not only did Lisch hurt himself in the opening stages of both the regular season and the playoffs, but the latter battle wound was a significant lateral ligament tear.
The unlucky Hawks star insists he’ll be ready for game three on Friday, as he continues to undergo physio treatment while steering clear of black cats and fragile mirrors.