Ever since I fell in love with Reggie Miller’s jumper as a kid, basketball has captivated me. The unparalleled athleticism of the NBA seemed another world away as I wasted my youth playing NBA Jam and investing far too much of my pocket money collecting trading cards. I still have some of those cards, but as far as an investment goes, it wasn’t advisable. Yet, that world seemed a giant leap closer with the New Zealand Breakers taking on the Phoenix Suns in a preseason clash. What started last year is now shaping as an annual event, with the NBA hosting Australian NBL teams as part of their preseason fixtures. The NBA will never be matched in terms of quality, but these matches at least open up a porthole to try measure the gulf in class.
So with the NBL season just a week away, I sat down to watch the Suns and the Breakers, while keeping a live diary of my thoughts.
Q1, 12:00. Ready for tipoff and it’s interesting to see the Breakers going with a small lineup. Import Shawn Long is their nominal starting centre, but at 6 foot 9 (2.06 metres) he’s relatively small for a centre. That might work against the plodding NBL bigs, but how it goes today against DeAndre Ayton will be worth watching. Ayton was the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft and is an athletic centre measuring 7 foot 1 (2.16 metres).
Q1, 11:39. A positive start for the Breakers as they feed the returning Tai Wesley inside. He draws a foul off Ryan Anderson in what is a great matchup between slick, side-part hairdos. In true Breakers tradition, Wesley bricks one of the free throws. Long has obviously been briefed on that tradition too, as he splits freebies a moment later.
Q1: 8:33. Corey Webster drains a sweet looking step-back jumper in the face of Anderson. He’s going to be key to their offense this season. The Breakers will go as Webster goes.
Q1: 7:03. NOT IN MY HOUSE! One issue with the lack of size is rebounding, as Ayton climbs above everyone to pull down an offensive board. De’Anthony Melton is then found cutting to the basket, but Tom Abercrombie comes with the help D and swats his layup out of play.
Q1: 5:04. The Breakers are struggling offensively so far, but are getting to the line. Abercrombie carries on the tradition, making one of two. Long then makes a sweet floater, before Abercrombie finishes off a miss with a putback to put the Breakers up 11-10. Since playing with the Suns in the 2013 NBA Summer League, Abercrombie has regressed statistically with the Breakers. They need him to return to something near peak form, particularly at the offensive end.
Q1: 0.35. Okay, this is really a thing. New signing Jarrad Weeks gets to the line, but misses both free throws, before another new signing, import Armani Moore, makes one of two. The tradition lives on! It seems free throw shooting will remain an Achilles heel for this side.
END OF Q1. A scrappy first quarter, but the Breakers have battled hard defensively and managed to get themselves in the bonus early by getting the ball inside. Unfortunately, a woeful quarter of free throw shooting means they trail 28-20.
Q2: 9:34. The banks stay open late in Phoenix! Harrison knocks down a three off the glass to stretch the margin to 13. The Breakers haven’t scored since the break and look to be struggling at the offensive end. Braswell calls for a timeout.
Q2: 8:42. Webster gets a kind shooter’s roll to finally get the Breakers started in the quarter. Wesley then uses his impressive frame to gain position on Harrison, making the layup and drawing the foul for the And One. Of course he then misses the free throw. More like And None.
Q2: 7:17. Ayton is causing all sorts of headaches with his size advantage. He pins a Wesley layup on the backboard to deny the Breakers at one end, before finishing off running the floor at the other. He looks impressive so far, which you’d expect from the #1 pick. They take him out of the game with 13 points and 10 boards, through just 16 minutes of play. Meanwhile Ariza gets himself three the hard way to stretch the lead to 14. The Breakers remain cold with their jump shots.
Q2: 3:54. Webster drains a three, before Ili shows off his game with a drive and finish off the glass. The lead is back under double digits at 43-32. That homegrown guard tandem could be one of the best in the NBL, provided they reach peak form.
END OF Q2. The slow start to the quarter hurts the Breakers, as they go to the major break down 52-42. Webster is the man keeping them in it, as his 14 points lead all scorers. Ayton’s 13 leads the Suns.
Q3: 11:37. Webster opens up the quarter with another wet three. He’s looking supremely confident with his jumper.
Q3: 8:30. Ariza knocks down a three as the shot clock evaporates to put the Suns up 12. His signing as a veteran is a strange one for a team on the rebuild, but as a title winner in 2009 he could be the ideal mentor for their young wings. Alternatively, the Suns could buy out his one year deal late in the season, leaving him to re-sign with a contender.
Q3: 5:56. The Suns top out their lead at 17, before Webster knocks down a pair of long twos to cut into the lead. The announcers gush in praise, even comparing him to Allen Iverson. That’s a stretch, but Iverson’s cousin Kuran did play in the New Zealand NBL last season with Manawatu.
Q3: 2:15. The Breakers get some stops with solid D, but can’t knock down a number of open looks. The lead creeps back to 16.
End of Q3. A jumper from Patrick Richard and a dunk from Weeks – who has sneaky hops – cuts the lead to 15 at the break. The difference in that quarter was shooting, as Ariza, Anderson and Troy Daniels made their open looks from deep.
Q4: 9:39. A Long dunk is followed by a feathery Ayton jumper from the elbow. That’s unguardable! Ili then drains a wide open three from the left wing, prompting a Suns timeout. The margin remains double digits, but the Suns haven’t been able to extend it beyond 17. 81-68.
Q4: 7:24. Moore makes back to back buckets, before drawing a foul from Dragan Bender beyond the arc. He has the chance to cut the lead to 8, but of course only makes 1 of 3 from the line. Not to worry though, as Abercrombie comes up with his second big swat of the night, before Long finishes at the other end. Suns timeout, 83-75.
Q4: 3:28. Both teams have their chances with open looks from three, but come up empty. Webster picks a rough moment to go cold, missing back to back open threes from the same spot.
Q4: 1:27. A gorgeous play out of a timeout allows Abercrombie to finish the alley-oop layup, before Webster goes splash with another three! 87-83!
End of Q4: Ili finds Webster in the corner for an open three, but he comes up short to leave the margin at four. The Suns make enough of their free throws to render a late Wesley three irrelevant, eventually winning 91-86.
A satisfying hitout for the Breakers, as they rally back from 17 points down to scare the Suns late. Corey Webster was huge with a game high 27 points, while Tai Wesley and Shawn Long had promising outings. The bench never really got going which might be a concern, combining for just 23 points on 6-20 shooting. Oh, and free throw shooting. 18-28 from the line was significant in a five point loss, as that ugly beast reared its head once again. Overall though, Kevin Braswell will be happy. They won’t see anybody nearly as talented as DeAndre Ayton this season. His length caused massive headaches for the undersized Breakers, dropping 21 points and pulling down 15 boards, pacing the Suns to the win.
The Breakers start the season 5th favourites with the bookies, but are largely an unknown quantity given their roster overhaul. Today provides enough evidence though to suggest they may be a dark horse behind the heavily fancied Melbourne and Sydney sides. Largely their hopes will rest on Corey Webster’s shoulders and, while his jumper may not be as pretty as Reggie Miller’s, his performance today suggests he’s not worlds away from the NBA.
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