New Zealand Breakers v Perth Wildcats
When: 5pm (AEDT), Sunday 22 January
Where: Vector Arena, Auckland
Broadcast: NBL TV; Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ
We’re going to need a bigger boat
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the big sharks of the NBL are circling once again.
The New Zealand Breakers have won three in a row, the Perth Wildcats four of their past six, and the winner of their Vector Arena clash on Sunday could move as high as second place.
While the Adelaide 36ers are undoubtedly the form team, Illawarra have played some electric basketball and Melbourne have a stacked roster, it is the Breakers and Perth who have claimed the past seven titles and know how to win when it matters.
As it stands, they are the top two in opposition field-goal percentage and the league’s best on the boards – both crucial playoff stats – meaning if these powerhouses qualify for the post-season everyone else will be nervous about what lurks below the surface.
Pointing in the right direction
After a season of remarkable disruption at the point guard position, where both teams have rolled five different floor generals through the line-up, they now appear set in that department and the results are starting to roll.
For New Zealand, the charismatic Kevin Dillard has been a revelation, averaging 24.3ppg at 52 per cent, 6.0 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 steals in their winning run, while fitting into the group like a well-worn glove.
“He’s doing a great job,” forward Akil Mitchell said.
“He’s done a great job of finding guys in the right spots and being aggressive when he needs to be … I think he’s exactly what we needed.”
Coach Paul Henare told New Zealand media Dillard has “got a really good balance” between creating for teammates and himself.
“He’s really taken the bull by the horns and the team has relished that and enjoyed having someone taking the reins, making plays and also getting everyone involved and allowing players do what they do best,” Henare said.
Dillard v Martin
For Perth, of course, the return of the legendary Damian Martin has triggered their run with his ability to bring energy to the defence and organisation at the offensive end.
In his five games back in red, Martin has pinched 11 steals, grabbed three offensive boards while turning the ball over just four times in 126 minutes.
That’s an extra 10 possessions for his team, along with those coach Trevor Gleeson believes happen too fast for the stats crews to register.
“He just has so much influence stripping guys when they rebound, I don’t think they ever count those ones,” Gleeson said.
“He’s there winning the 50-50 ball and every time we needed a big rebound it was him coming to get it.”
Before their captain’s return, Perth were averaging more turnovers than their opponents, but in the five games Martin has been back they are plus-19 in that department.
Their ability to look after the ball while pestering Cairns into constant error on Friday was a warning to the league.
“The turnovers were great, I think it has 13 turnovers to one at half-time,” Gleeson said.
“It helps when Damo’s fit too, that was the first time Damo was on unlimited minutes, before he’d been restricted to 20-25, so it’s good to have him out there pestering guys and disrupting teams.”
The possession game has long been a brutal war when Perth and New Zealand meet, but remarkably the Breakers triumphed at Perth Arena in Round 6 despite being outrebounded by 20, a problem they remedied five weeks later at Vector Arena, mauling the Wildcats 48-31 on the glass.
That dominance allowed them to peg Perth’s offence in the half-court and restrict them to just 57 points, the second-lowest in franchise history, only Casey Prather able to break the shackles.
Alex Pledger had 16 points, nine rebounds and six blocks that night to dominate the keyway and hold the Wildcats to 13-of-46 shooting from two-point range.
“He was huge,” coach Paul Henare said.
“I thought Chief was outstanding defensively, he did a great job one-on-one in the post with Matt Knight, and obviously the shots he was changing around there.”
Knight hasn’t been his usual self since injuring his shoulder in Sydney – averaging 7.3ppg at 38 per cent – and Gleeson seems delighted by the late-season emergence of Angus Brandt to fill that hole.
“He was a power down there, the guys were getting him the ball at the right time. His footwork was fantastic,” Gleeson said after Brandt’s 17-point, 11-board, two-block performance against Cairns.
“That would be a season-high for points and rebounds, he was active, he was blowing, I know he was tired and they were saying he needs a break and I was saying I don’t care he’s staying out there.
“It probably took him a little bit to get what we needed from him at the start of the season but his last month he’s been great.”
Brandt, Knight, Jesse Wagstaff and Jameel McKay have a huge job defensively on Sunday, with the Breakers now possessing a dangerous mix of on-ball action for Dillard and Paul Carter – particularly in pick-and-pop situations with Rob Loe – and off-ball screening for Kirk Penney, who splashed 23 points on the Hawks.
“I thought the bigs did a great job of setting screens for him and getting him open, we’ve just got to put him in situations where he can score and then they’ll have focus on him and we’ve got other guys that can step up,” Henare said.
“We’ve begun to find a really good balance with our offence and as long as we can stay locked into the defensive side of things we’ll be ok.”
Perth’s danger man is import Bryce Cotton, who may be struggling percentage-wise but has shown a knack for finding teammates and hitting big shots in the big moment.
“Bryce has given us a different look with the pick-and-roll, they’ve got to come out so he’s opening up opportunities and he’s not afraid to pass the ball,” Gleeson said.
“We like when he’s aggressive.”
Sunday will be a new experience for Cotton, however, having to back up in 40 hours after traveling 6000km across the continent and beyond.
It’s not an easy trip, one the Wildcats haven’t conquered since 2013, yet they must win by more than 11 points to secure the season series.
“This is the toughest road trip without a question,” Gleeson said.
“Five hours time change so it’s the toughest you get. Most of our guys did that last year in the playoffs, they know what to expect, know how to take care of the body.
“We’ve got to teach the new guys this year how to take care of that as it’s a big game over there.”