Christmas comes late to lift Breakers’ NBL hopes

Chris Pike Columnist

By Chris Pike, Chris Pike is a Roar Expert

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    The New Zealand Breakers delivered a strong win over the Cairns Taipans on Sunday to be just percentage from top spot in the NBL but it’s the pending arrival of their third import that could have them championship favourites.

    On the back of losing five of seven matches following a nine-game winning streak, the Breakers recaptured some strong form on Sunday at Spark Arena to come away with the 82-69 victory.

    That improves New Zealand to a 12-6 record joining both the Perth Wildcats and Melbourne United on the same mark with the Breakers only in third spot courtesy of percentage.

    There were a string of impressive performances from the Breakers led by Edgar Sosa with 19 points and six assists. Tom Abercrombie contributed 16 points, six rebounds and three blocks while DJ Newbill scored 12 points and Kirk Penney 11.

    Considering they have gone through the 18 games with just the two imports and only percentage has them short of top spot, it would be silly to say they couldn’t go on and win the championship with this current team.

    But since that nine-game winning streak, they have struggled in large patches and they have appeared a team that needed an injection of talent and energy.

    They are the only team in the league with an import slot up the sleeve and they are now set to pull the trigger on that with the pending arrival of Rakeem Christmas.

    Clearly the Breakers have decided it is in the frontcourt they need some added help and Christmas arrives as a big man who has previously played in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers and at Galatasaray in Turkey since his college career at Syracuse.

    His presence alongside Alex Pledger, Rob Loe and Mika Vukona in the frontcourt could very well be the move that secures a fifth championship for the Breakers in the past eight seasons.

    It is a great credit to everyone at the Breakers that they are 12-6 having had just the two imports and a group of strong New Zealand talent made up of Vukona, Abercrombie, Penney, Shea Ili, Pledger, Loe and Finn Delany shows what a strong core that is, but also how well they work as a unit.

    The import backcourt of Newbill and Sosa has been strong too, combining for 29.5 points and 7.4 assists a game.

    DJ Newbill drives the ball

    (AAP Image/ David Rowland)

    The Breakers are in a good spot right now even with the two imports. They could claim the regular season championship. They could even with a fifth NBL championship in eight seasons with this current group.

    But with the possibility that they could still make the move of bringing in a third import to give them an injection of talent and energy right now with ten games of the season remaining was something they could and should not have passed up.

    For a team in the league to currently have the ability to do something to make themselves significantly better if they find the right player just has to do it.

    The season started with a shock loss at home to Cairns in Round 1 for the Breakers, but things immediately started to click and they went on a nine-game winning streak punctuated by two wins inside three days over the Wildcats.

    A nine-game winning streak is nothing to be sneezed at. But they did have some lucky escapes along the way including at home to the Sydney Kings and Brisbane Bullets, and most notably on the road to Cairns when Sosa nailed the winning three and then Cam Gliddon’s prayer was waved off.

    The winning streak ended at the hands of Perth at North Shore Events Centre on December 1 and it hasn’t been the same Breakers team since.

    Their only wins had come against bottom two teams the Kings and Bullets with both going down to the wire before Sunday’s home win against the Snakes.

    Losses to the Bullets and then three times against the Adelaide 36ers have highlighted that the Breakers do have some work to do to be in the championship discussion.

    There’s no question that a team coached by Paul Henare and that has strong import guards in Sosa and Newbill and is led by Vukona, Abercrombie, Penney and Pledger with the emerging Ili and Delany could turn things around.

    It wouldn’t have been a great surprise to see them end up going all the way this season with this current group.

    But with a chance to make a mark on the group and get even better by bringing in a third import the calibre of Christmas was something they have rightfully pulled the trigger on.

    The question needed answering was the type of player New Zealand could use.

    They have a well-balanced roster with good depth across the board. The backcourt of Sosa, Newbill and Ili looks sound with Penney splitting his time between the two and three spots behind Abercrombie.

    Vukona is being his usual self at power forward with Delany spending time behind him and also spending some minutes at the three. Pledger and Loe look to have the five spot well covered. Jordan Ngatai and James Hunter make up their 11, but have not been part of Henare’s rotation.

    It looks like that power forward and backup centre spot is where the Breakers could use some help. Vukona is the most incredible warrior in the NBL but it could be that right now too much is being expected of him and getting an import to help him out might make him even more effective.

    When you think of the Breakers’ championship triumphs of 2011 and 2012, you think of the presence of red-headed firebrand Gary Wilkinson. He was that stretch big who could step out and shoot but also get the job done inside. He did that alongside Vukona and Pledger.

    His role was filled for the 2012-13 season by Will Hudson. He was more of a genuine inside player but again, the end result was a championship for New Zealand.

    The Breakers again won the 2015 championship and that was a team that featured Ekene Ibekwe, who ended up coming up huge when it mattered most, including hitting the title-winning shot against the Taipans in the clinching grand final Game 2.

    Last season, the Breakers didn’t have great luck with imports beginning with Ben Woodside and Akil Mitchell, and ended up finishing with Kevin Dillard and Paul Carter with Mitchell sidelined through his nasty eye injury. In between, there was David Stockton as well.

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

    (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

    As a result, you can’t blame the Breakers for being cautious on pulling the trigger on a third import. But a cautious approach very rarely leads to championships. Consider the Wildcats 12 months ago, if they never bit the bullet on bringing in Bryce Cotton, they might well have taken home the wooden spoon instead of the title.

    Add a player the calibre of a Wilkinson, Ibekwe or even Mitchell to the frontcourt, and this Breakers team could be unstoppable. There’s no question that Christmas fits the bill as someone with a strong interior presence.

    They might end up winning it all anyway, but why not put the odds further in your favour if you have the opportunity?

    It’s going to be a fascinating run home for the Breakers too. Of the remaining ten games, seven of them are against both Melbourne United and the Illawarra Hawks, starting in Wollongong this Saturday night.

    “I know we play Melbourne three times in the run home and Illawarra four so they are two teams that we are going to have to finish the season off against well,” coach Henare said.

    “First up we have Illawarra next week for the first time this season, which is really weird. But they have been playing some good hoops and they were tough against Melbourne in a long part of that game and they were unfortunate to let that one go.

    “They have been playing some really good hoops at home and it’s going to be a new challenge. Sosa hasn’t played against this team or seen much of this team and DJ is the same.

    “Thankfully we have a full week to go through that whole process of learning about them and trying to come up with a game plan that can hopefully keep getting us wins on the road.”

    NBL Round 13 Results
    THURSDAY
    Adelaide 36ers 97 defeated Perth Wildcats 86

    FRIDAY
    Cairns Taipans 83 defeated Brisbane Bullets 80

    SATURDAY
    Sydney Kings 68 lost to Perth Wildcats 76
    Illawarra Hawks 77 lost to Melbourne United 79

    SUNDAY
    New Zealand Breakers 82 defeated Cairns Taipans 69
    Brisbane Bullets 84 lost to Adelaide 36ers 95

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