Twenty seven games down, just one to go. Christchurch on Friday night will see the Breakers take on South East Melbourne in their final regular season game. As with so much that’s happened in the last four months, there is still uncertainty, even at this late stage. The Breakers can win this game and still miss the finals, but also lose and make the final four; clear as mud, right?
Victory over the Brisbane Bullets last Friday saw them achieve a season high of fourth place on the NBL ladder and, for the first time in 2019/20, secure a positive win/loss record (14-13). It’s quite the turnaround from November 24th when defeat to the Adelaide 36ers saw the ledger at 2-8.
By that stage, multiple off-court controversies were accompanying the fact that playoff basketball was highly improbable. General Manager Dillon Boucher and Assistant Coach Mike Fitchett had departed the club before the season had started and Corey Webster had asked to be released from his contract. With the season underway, Glen Rice Jr came in as injury cover for Scotty Hopson and managed just three games. Tom Vodanovich found out the hard way that sleeping pills and alcohol aren’t a good combo on a flight back from Perth following their seventh defeat of the campaign.
Owner Matt Walsh was a man under siege; where was the family club the former owners Paul and Liz Blackwell had built? Surely the supporters would desert the sinking ship en masse; to Walsh’s credit, he never ducked and instead stood as tall as his 1.98m would allow him. Game 11 at Spark Arena saw a season high attendance of 8,474 and the home team obliged with a 91-79 win over Illawarra Hawks. The popular #UNBREAKABLE hashtag seemed appropriate as the fans stuck by their team at their lowest ebb (to put the crowd figure in context, they had averaged 4,864 in 10 home games at Spark Arena the previous season).
On the court, results to date had been adversely affected by an extensive injury list. Rob Loe, Tom Vodanovich and Finn Delany were early season casualties before Hopson split a ligament in his knee and Webster rolled an ankle.
As players returned to fitness, the Breakers enjoyed Christmas and New Year more than most as they went on a five game unbeaten run (including four on the road) with Hobson and Sek Henry grabbing impressive personal stats to take the headlines. Since then a 5-3 win/loss record to get them to their last game has seen veteran Thomas Abercrombie and Finn Delany show the imports that they aren’t to be forgotten with a series of valuable performances.
Last Saturday morning after the victory against Brisbane, Matt Walsh spoke to Jim Kayes on Radio Sport. On the team, he said:
‘I’ve never been around as a player or anything, a team that has the resilience and just never gives up like our guys, it’s a lot of fun to be around.’
Importantly, he also acknowledged matters that haven’t gone so well. Going forward, they will continue to look at preseason NBA opposition but they will be ‘more strategic’ in that regard, looking at games where they can fly direct, for example the West Coast; also, in the future, those fixtures can’t be at the expense of the NBL season.
He also said that they underestimated how difficult it would be for 18 year old RJ Hampton to come to New Zealand for six months and run a professional team as a point guard. The RJ Hampton experiment/experience has had its detractors and certainly the season ending injury that he suffered left a somewhat flat feeling. If it didn’t reach the heights during game time , it certainly worked off the court as demonstrated by the increased spectator numbers, fan engagement and attention on the club from overseas. The Breakers will be back in for another NBA ‘Next Star’, although it seems likely it will be a player in a different position.
I’ve heard Scotty Hopson say more than once recently that the Breakers can win this Championship and you can tell he believes it. They’ve come a long way in a short period of time. They’re still not in the finals and the fairy-tale could end abruptly this week. But if they make it, no-one will take them for granted and with the run of form they’ve been on, we can all dare to dream.
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