Breakers veteran Mika Vukona shoots the match-winning basket to beat the Sydney Kings at North Shore Events Centre in Auckland on Friday night. Photo: Getty Images
It may not have been the play that was drawn up, but a last-second three-pointer from Mika Vukona was enough for the New Zealand Breakers to continue their iron grip on the Sydney Kings at the NSEC.
A 79-76 victory, sealed by a corner triple from Vukona with one second on the clock, extended the 4-1 Breakers' Australian NBL winning streak to four and maintained their pursuit of the unbeaten Perth Wildcats and Wollongong Hawks who meet on Sunday.
Led by a strong all-round display from Alex Pledger (16 points, 10 boards and three blocks) and a trademark high-impact effort by Cedric Jackson (22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals), the Breakers made it seven wins on the trot over the Kings since the Sydneysiders came back into the league.
But it was Vukona's ice-cool nuthin-but-net shot at the death - not long after he'd thrown up an air-ball jumper that Pledger converted into a lay-in - that ended up being the difference between the two sides.
"Everyone knows that, huh," said Vukona when asked if that was the shot coach Andrej Lemanis had drawn up. "I had to set a back screen for the guard out there and with Cedric penetrating all the time, everybody just sucks in and I had no choice but to put it up."
And how did it feel leaving his hand?
"It felt good. But so did the air-ball that I took to Alex," said the Breakers power forward.
It was only Vukona's 12th three-pointer in 181 games for the Kiwi club, but he said it was a shot he was working hard to make part of his repertoire. "I'm putting up shots after training, and it's something Drej [coach Andrej Lemanis] said to try and put up when I can and it worked out for me tonight."
Lemanis just hopes his game-winner encourages Vukona to look for the triple more often.
"Whilst he's not known as a three-point shooter if you look at his percentages they're actually pretty good over the course of his career. It's just Mika's got to believe in shooting them.
"As a team we want him to take more because we see the work he puts in. His form is good and he makes a good percentage when he shoots them at practice. He just needs to believe in it and shoot it, no problems at all."
But this was another testing contest - certainly a lot tougher than the average winning margin last year of 27.6 points - as the 3-3 Kings played the Breakers right to the wire, thanks to an offensive masterclass by the in-form Ben Madgen (30 points on 11-of-20 shooting, as well as five boards and six assists).
The Breakers did manage their highest score of the season, but would have been disappointed by the way they let the Kings back in the game in the final quarter after sneaking out to seven around the middle stages.
Still, once again they did what they had to as Vukona stepped up to own the final moments, and the Breakers had converted another untidy display into a victory.
It was their 28th home win in their last 32 games - an impressive record by any measure. They also won with zero points and just one rebound from Tom Abercrombie who was slowed by fouls and a hamstring injury.
In front of a near capacity crowd of 3653 a 14-point second quarter from Jackson helped the Breakers turn an early five-point deficit into a 43-39 half-time lead, after the two sides had been locked (17-17) at the end of an ugly opening stanza.
It was a timely spurt from Jackson as he cashed in on a couple of steals to get his to-the-basket game going beautifully.
He rattled off the points in quick fashion through the middle stages of the quarter as the Breakers finally found an answer to Madgen's own 15-point first-half explosion for the Kings.
Back-to-back three-pointers from Bruton and seven straight points from Pledger saw the Breakers extend their lead to as many as a dozen in the third quarter, though the Kings scrambled well to close it to seven (57-64) by the end of the period.
The visitors hung tough to get within three (65-68) midway through the final quarter, and from there it came down to who made the big shots at the finish.
Much to the Kings' despair it was Vukona who answered the bell, as Madgen's tough attempt at a tying triple came up wide of the mark.
The Breakers' shooting still leaves plenty to be desired - 42 per cent from the field, just 50 from the line - but once again their defence got them home, as did their ability to convert turnovers into points (a 20-4 advantage for the home team).
The back-to-back defending champions hit the road next weekend for the Sunshine Swing through Townsville and Cairns.
NZ Breakers 79 (Cedric Jackson 22, Alex Pledger 16, Daryl Corletto 12, Mika Vukona 10); Sydney Kings 76 (Ben Madgen 30, Aaron Bruce 14). 1Q: 17-17; HT: 43-39; 3Q: 64-57.