They’ll enter their semi-final series with Melbourne United as winners of four of the last five NBL titles, but tonight’s Game 1 will be the first time the Breakers have competed in the playoffs as the fourth seed.
Even though New Zealand’s ultimate successes in the last five years have all followed first or second-place regular season finishes, their runs to four championships have been varied enough to prepare them for a series in which they must win on the road.
“We go in in a spot we haven’t found ourselves in before, but still obviously with the same amount of confidence in ourselves,” Thomas Abercrombie said after Breakers training on Tuesday.
“We know we can get the job done no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we’ve been there before and done it.”
Abercrombie, Mika Vukona and Alex Pledger played in all four of New Zealand’s victorious Grand Final series, and Corey Webster and Cedric Jackson were there for three of them.
Everard Bartlett, Shane McDonald and Charles Jackson haven’t won a title with the Breakers, but the team still discusses previous playoff appearances.
“You try not to go back and talk too much about the past, not every one of those guys were here,” said Dean Vickerman, who was assistant coach during the three-peat and head coach for last season’s championship.
“But we’d be stupid if we didn’t reflect on some of the great things that happened in the past and how we dealt with situations.”
The situations they dealt with previously include losing the home court advantage they spent the regular season earning.
In 2010-11, the Breakers finished top of the ladder with a 22-6 record. That led them to a semi-final matchup with the Perth Wildcats, a team with six fewer wins. The discrepancy in regular season success and the fact Game 1 was held in a building where New Zealand was 12-2 meant the Breakers were well positioned to take the opening game of the series at the North Shore Events Centre.
Instead, Kevin Lisch had 29 points, New Zealand lost the rebound count 26-47 and the Wildcats won the game by 23. With the series moving to Challenge Stadium in Perth for Game 2, the Wildcats had taken the home court edge. The Breakers’ three-peat was one hold of serve by Perth from never happening.
In Game 2, Kirk Penney had 38 points while shooting 16-of-20 free throws, and the Breakers came back from a two-point deficit at three-quarter time to win by four points.
New Zealand won the decider at home against the Wildcats, who were without Shawn Redhage for the series, by 16 points.
After going on to win that season’s Grand Final series 2-1 against the Cairns Taipans, the Breakers again finished first in 2011-12 and again lost their opening semi-final game against the fourth seed.
The Townsville Crocodiles won Game 1 at Vector Arena by 17 points after shooting 57.1 percent from the field, meaning New Zealand faced a road elimination game for the second straight season.
New Zealand led at halftime of Game 2 in Townsville by 14 points, and sent the series back to Auckland with an 11-point win.
The Breakers finished the series with a 97-80 victory in a game notable for Peter Crawford’s foul on Abercrombie late in the match that resulted in an ankle injury for Abercrombie.
Since losing that opener against the Crocs, New Zealand is undefeated at home in the playoffs and undefeated overall in the semis. They won the championship in 2012, 2013 and — after missing the playoffs in 2014 — in 2015 as well.
Given those semi-finals series against Perth and Townsville, it’s unsurprising Vickerman isn’t concerned about playing on the road against Melbourne. He welcomed the idea of playing in front of a large crowd like the Breakers faced on Sunday, when they beat United at Hisense Arena.
“It was an unbelievable crowd the other night and we hope that they can pack it out again and we can play in front of a great atmosphere,” Vickerman said.
New Zealand are 3-1 against Melbourne this season and, including that game on Sunday, beat the minor premiers twice in the last round of the season. But the results of the regular season series count for little with the arrival of the playoffs.
“The momentum is cool, but we know it’s zero-zero, anything can happen,” Cedric Jackson said.
The point guard also added he isn’t drawing on previous playoff memories because the Breakers haven’t faced this United team in the postseason before. Melbourne’s last playoff appearance was in 2013-14, as the Tigers, and three of their starters haven’t played an NBL playoff game.
United did go 18-10 this season however, and in doing so earned home court advantage throughout the postseason. But their semi-final opponents have firsthand knowledge that hosting Game 1 guarantees nothing.
“Home court is what you make it,” Abercrombie said.
“I think if we can get this first game on the road, things swing back in our favour. This first game’s obviously hugely important, it can change everything.”