Breakers and Wildcats’ remarkable dominance not ending anytime soon

Chris Pike Columnist

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    Akil Mitchell for the NZ Breakers during the NBL League match between the Perth Wildcats and the NZ Breakers at the Arena in Perth, on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

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    It is remarkable that after splitting the past eight NBL championships and having battled one another in four finals series that entering Round 6 of the 2017-18 season the New Zealand Breakers and Perth Wildcats are still battling over top spot.

    In a league so competitive, for eight straight seasons only two teams have won championships. The Wildcats have taken out the title in 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2017, and the Breakers in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.

    No grand final since 2009 hasn’t featured at least one of them, while they met in tantalising battles in the 2011 semis, and grand finals of 2012, 2013 and 2016.

    That first semi-final battle might have been the best of the lot factoring in Perth’s upset Game 1 win in Auckland, Kirk Penney’s heroics with 38 points at Challenge Stadium in Game 2, and then the Breakers proving too strong back home in the decider.

    All three grand final battles were fascinating in their own right even if the rest of the league might have tired of seeing Perth and New Zealand continuing to lock horns. But you can’t fault the clubs for being too good.

    There are memories no one will forget from each series including Shawn Redhage’s remarkable block on CJ Bruton in 2012 before the Breakers proved too strong at home.

    There was the Breakers then completing their three-peat by cementing their place in history in the first season of Perth Arena by winning in two games in enemy territory.

    It could be argued that it wasn’t a real rivalry, though, coming into the 2016 grand final series given the Breakers had won the past three finals battles.

    akil-mitchell-new-zealand-breakers-nbl-basketball-2016

    (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

    Try telling inspirational Wildcats captain Damian Martin that it isn’t a real rivalry. He put in a defensive performance for the ages to blanket Cedric Jackson and earn MVP honours to deliver Perth that elusive championship victory against their New Zealand rivals.

    It’s not as though the only parts of the rivalry have been built during the finals either.

    There have been remarkable regular season games and none more so than in recent seasons including Cedric Jackson’s three-quarter court game-winner. Then last season Corey Webster stripped Jaron Johnson to give the Breakers a win when all seemed lost.

    It must be the most storied rivalry in NBL history despite Melbourne United, banking on the history of the Tigers, and the Sydney Kings trying to take that tag.

    Perth and New Zealand deserve it because now for an eighth straight season, even though it’s early, it’s going to take some doing to stop one of them going all the way.

    To think that having shared the past eight titles and with their own battles, that their games this weekend starting Thursday in Auckland and then Sunday in Perth will determine top spot after Round 6 is incredible.

    It’s not as though they are in a league that’s not competitive. The Cairns Taipans, Adelaide 36ers and Illawarra Hawks have all made it to grand finals over the past eight years. Melbourne and Sydney continue to throw the bank at competing with them but so far there is nothing to stop them.

    bryce-cotton-perth-wildcats-nbl-basketball-2017-tall

    (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    It starts with the front office. The two clubs are the best run off-court in the NBL and the stability that comes from management goes a long way to helping the coaches and players focus on getting the job done, and feeling fully supported.

    Then there is the core groups that have stayed together. At New Zealand, Alex Pledger, Mika Vukona and Tom Abercrombie have been there for this whole successful run while Kirk Penney, Shea Ili and Rob Loe are key components.

    While Shawn Redhage and Matt Knight are now retired at Perth, Damian Martin has been there since that first championship season of 2009-10 along with Jesse Wagstaff while Greg Hire and Jarrod Kenny are multiple championship winners.

    Having those core groups makes it so easier for players to then come in and be the icing on the cake. That includes star imports Edgar Sosa and DJ Newbill with the Breakers, and the returning Bryce Cotton and excitement machine Jean-Pierre Tokoto at the ‘Cats.

    While Martin will be charged with the defensive job on Sosa, whoever out of Sosa and Cotton can get rolling will have a big say in the result.

    Newbill might spend some time on Tokoto, but the real battle to watch will be the Perth weapon going up against New Zealand’s criminally underrated four-time championship-winning 252-game veteran Abercrombie. That will see just about the league’s two most athletic players locking horns.

    Then Sunday’s game at Perth Arena for New Zealand basketball legend Vukona will see him celebrate appearance No. 400 in the NBL.

    He will go down as perhaps the toughest warrior the league has seen both in terms of the way he competes on the floor but also fights through injury and any pain he might be feeling to always get on the court.

    At one point he went five seasons straight without missing a game and playing 161 consecutive matches. During that stretch, he even suffered a knee injury in a grand final series that would have kept a mere mortal sidelined for weeks or months. Vukona played through it.

    mika-vukona-new-zealand-breakers-nbl-basketball-tall

    Having also won a championship at the South Dragons during his stint there and time at the Gold Coast Blaze in between his Breakers career, it is in New Zealand he will leave his legacy both for his efforts in the NBL and for the Tall Blacks at international level.

    As he approaches game 400, he is not only a five-time NBL championship winner but in 331 appearances for the Breakers, is first in games played and rebounds in club history, third in points scored, field goals made and steals, and fourth in assists and blocked shots. He’s also the faraway leader in fouls called on him and turnovers.

    It might take Vukona some time to adjust this round against the Wildcats though. For the first time since he returned to the Breakers for the 2010-11 season he will play a Perth team that won’t have either Redhage or Knight in it.

    They have been his two main foes over this whole Wildcats-Breakers rivalry, but they are retired with Vukona the last man standing.

    But the focus is on two games with top spot on the line in Round 6 of the NBL. Just take a moment to think again that these are the same clubs that have split the past eight championships.

    It’s hard to picture another sport where two teams continue to be so dominant in a league that is made to be competitive between all eight clubs and to be remarkably even.

    NBL Round 6 fixtures (AEDT)
    Thursday

    New Zealand Breakers v Perth Wildcats – Perth Arena 5.30pm
    Cairns Taipans v Melbourne United – Cairns Convention Centre 7.30pm

    Saturday

    Melbourne United v Sydney Kings – Hisense Arena 5.30pm
    Adelaide 36ers v Illawarra Hawks – Titanium Security Arena 7.30pm

    Sunday
    Brisbane Bullets v Cairns Taipans – Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre 3.00pm
    Perth Wildcats v New Zealand Breakers – Perth Arena 7.00pm

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