NBL championship series, game 5: NZ Breakers v Sydney Kings. Where: Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney. When: 9.30pm Wednesday, March 15. Coverage: Live on ESPN, live updates on Stuff. Results so far: Game 1, Sydney: Breakers 95, Kings 87; Game 2, Auckland: Kings 81, Breakers 74; Game 3, Sydney: Kings 91, Breakers 68; Game 4, Auckland: Breakers 80, Kings 70..
All the peripheral noise, all the post-game hissy-fits and thinly veiled attempts to curry favour, heck even all the dramatic action of the preceding four games of this captivating NBL championship series counts for nothing shortly after 7.30pm local time at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney on Wednesday night.
That is when the defending champion Sydney Kings and upstart New Zealand Breakers will tip off 40 minutes of basketball to decide the champions for 2022-23. In a series locked at 2-2, where each team has had moments of ascendancy, and periods in the doldrums, it’s how it should be. One game to decide it all.
Who wins? The Kings have to be favourites. They’re regular season No 1s, ‘21-22 champs, playing at home and fresh off a convincing victory (91-68) last time they ran out there in front of an NBL record 18,049. But the Breakers are not without hope. They’ve been excellent on the road all year, they have arguably the two best offensive players of the series (Jarrell Brantley and Barry Brown Jr) and they play a rugged, hard-nosed, defence-first style that often prevails in deciding contests like this. Plus they’re on a one-game win streak.
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If it’s a showcase of offensive hoops, played at pace and with space, you have to favour the Kings, even with league MVP Xavier Cooks playing hobbled, to claim a second straight championship, and fifth all told.
But if it becomes a grit-and-grind type affair, with scores in the 70s or 80s, with every possession vital, shot-clocks going the distance, the Breakers will fancy their chances of completing the outhouse to the penthouse turnaround and grabbing a fifth championship one season after finishing dead-ass last.
Emotions ran high as coaches traded barbs after the Breakers levelled the NBL grand final series at Spark Arena.
The narrative this week has been very much set by petulant (some might say cry-baby) Kings coach Chase Buford when he launched a premeditated attack on the Breakers and game officials following the game-four defeat at Spark on Sunday. Quite where the NBL censure has been for some dodgy comments – “It’s always tough to compete against eight” and “We knew we were going to get hosed” – is anyone’s guess, but it’s to be hoped the referees have seen through his ploy as easily as the Breakers have.
It made for good copy, so it was hoovered up by media. Buford even added a dramatic press-conference walkout, to a totally fair question from Stuff, just to add a little spice. The whole thing reeked of grandstanding and agenda-setting … but this is the world we live in.
Breakers owner Matt Walsh told Stuff Buford’s comments were “gamesmanship” and a “calculated” attempt to gain an edge for the decider. “My only hope is that the officials let the players decide this,” he added.
First-year Breakers mentor Mody Maor, who should have won the NBL coach of the year gong, was equally dismissive: “Everybody is doing the best that they can. I sat here after game three in the series and I didn’t say one peep about the referees because they are doing the best that they can. All the other noise, man, it belongs somewhere else.”
Surely the referees rise above this stuff, and let the players decide it. Who makes the most shots, the most stops, deserves to win. Not who draws the most whistle.
Breakers skipper Tom Abercrombie is adamant his team plays hard, but fair, defence, and will be doing just that on Wednesday night as they chase a fairytale finish to their season.
“We’re a very good defensive team and when you play against a good defensive team sometimes it can be frustrating,” he reflected. “They’re a very good defensive team as well, in a different way to us. It’s not easy defending the way we do, and it’s not easy playing against it, but it’s nothing different to what we’ve been doing all season long.
“It’s who we are. We play clean, we embrace that side of the floor, and we enjoy it. It’s part of our identity.”
Abercrombie, who was part of all four previous championships won by the Breakers, said it was inevitable in a series of this length there would be a little, er, agitation.
“There’s a lot on the line. Both teams want it very badly. It brings out all sorts of emotions. Whenever there’s talk and storylines round a five-game series things are going to bubble to the surface. We’re completely focused on what we’re doing, embracing who we are and will continue to do that for one more game.”
This has always been a clash of styles series. The Kings love to score. The Breakers love to defend. They are both good at their core strengths.
The Breakers owner enjoyed a series-levelling effort from his team at Spark.
Sydney have plenty of danger men. Cooks, even hurt, is all class. Derrick Walton Jr is a brilliant playmaker, Justin Simon a great defender and slasher and Dejan Vasiljevic, Angus Glover, Tim Soares, Kouat Noi and Jordie Hunter will hurt you in a heartbeat.
But the Breakers have Brantley and Brown Jr. They have McDowell-White and Dererk Pardon. They have Rob Loe and Abercrombie and Rayan Rupert who can also do their thing.
So what does it take? “Another massive, massive effort – absolutely emptying the tank again,” says the skipper. “Playing hard, playing the right way and playing our style of basketball.”