Kings forward Darnell Lazare shoots under pressure from Tom Abercrombie of the Breakers. Photo: Getty Images
Former Boomers great Shane Heal is like the rest of us. He can't quite figure out this New Zealand Breakers side that continues to master the art of winning ugly in the NBL.
But the man who once went jaw-to-jaw with Charles Barkley in his prime knows one thing – as the back-to-back champions continue to find ways to win scrappy ball games, they're still an ominous force in this league.
Heal's Sydney Kings were the latest team to walk out of the Breakers' gym scratching their heads over how they let one slip. So far the Kiwi club has looked a shadow of the offensive powerhouse that steamrolled through the last two regular seasons, yet the NZ side has just rattled off four straight victories to go 4-1.
On Friday night it took a last-second corner three from Mika Vukona to eke out a 79-76 victory that was, again, gloriously imperfect. The Breakers shot just 42 per cent, made only half their foul-shots and missed 16 of 22 attempts from deep.
Yet once more they found a way to win a game that threatened to get away from them, largely thanks to commanding individual displays from Cedric Jackson (22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals) and Alex Pledger (16 points, 10 boards and three blocks ).
Heal was asked if winning ugly was something we might have to put up with all season as the Breakers figure out their new identity post-Gary Wilkinson.
“It's a good question,” said Heal. “Across the board a lot of teams have improved, so New Zealand are going to have their challenges. But winning ugly is not bad either because with the class they've got, when they get things going again they're going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
“Different” was how Heal termed this year's Breakers line-up. Because But also a little bit the same.
“Andrej [Lemanis] has done a great job creating a culture that is successful,” added Heal. “When they roll the balls out they've got everybody except [Will] Hudson who knows exactly what they're doing, and they've got good at it over the last few years.”
Still, the Breakers continue to search for their offensive fluidity, and they were guilty of letting the Kings back in the game after leading by 13 in the third quarter and seven in the final stanza.
“We're in a great spot, we're 4-1 and we've still got our best basketball in front of us,” said Lemanis. “To shoot 42 per cent and keep winning ball games is a really positive sign, and I've felt the last couple of weeks the group has started to get there. I'm happy with the synergy of the group.”
As Lemanis pointed out, to win with almost no contribution from Tom Abercrombie (and Corey Webster out with a back injury) was also an encouraging sign. The talented swingman, bothered by fouls and a hamstring strain, had no points on zero-for-four shooting and added a single board in 24 minutes.
“It's the way it seems to be every week with different people stepping up.”
This week it was Pledger again with his second double-double of the season, and those doubts fading fast into the ether.
“The more he gets exposed to being the starter and understanding we rely on him, the better he's going to be at coping and delivering,” said Lemanis. “Seeing him wanting the ball in big situations is impressive, and the three blocks… he affects the game in a lot of different ways.”
Heal described the pick-and-roll combination of Pledger and Jackson as a “nightmare” to deal with, and Lemanis praised his point guard's leadership and creativity.
“Ced carried us at important moments, did a great job of attacking the zone, stayed aggressive, got in the lane and finished plays. That then starts opening things up for other people, with Mika's three at the end a good example.”
That's the Breakers right now. Beautifully ugly.