The key match-ups: New Zealand Breakers vs Phoenix Suns

The New Zealand Breakers are the next club to step up to the plate on the NBL’s tour of the USA, when they face the Phoenix Suns on Thursday. The Breakers will face the young and emerging Suns on their home court, Talking Stick Resort Arena, in the club’s first ever game against an NBA club.

New Zealand are coming into the game very undersized. With their two tallest players, Majok Majok and Shawn Long, standing at 206cm the club has no seven-footers. In stark contrast, the Suns have three on their list. It is going to take a gutsy effort from the Breakers.

Head coach Kevin Braswell is going to need his stars to bring their A-game to be in with a shot of taking the win, let alone being competitive. Thursday will be a big test of the Breakers’ small-ball approach.

Emerging superstar Devin Booker will almost certainly be watching from the Phoenix sidelines, having recently undergone surgery on his right hand. His absence at least gives the Breakers one less thing to have to worry about.

The Breakers are going to have to out-work and out-run Phoenix. With their small-ball roster, New Zealand’s capacity to hit threes will be vital. The Sun’s have a lot of inexperienced players on their list, which may become an advantage for the visiting NBL club as the game progresses.

New Zealand has a massive mountain to climb, but here are five key match-ups for the Breakers in their battle against the Suns.

Webster vs. Okobo

A contender to get the starting job on Thursday for Phoenix is 20 year-old rookie guard, Elie Okobo. The young French guard was selected this year with the 31st overall pick in the NBA Draft after playing three years for French club Pau-Lacq-Orthez in the country’s top league, Pro A.

Okobo is an extremely aggressive guard whose natural instinct is to score points, sometimes at the expense of setting up his teammates. He has an immature his tendency to bail out the defence with some highly questionable shot selections.

It is this aspect of Okobo’s psychology that Webster should exploit. If he can frustrate Okobo and deny him good looks, the chances are high that the young and headstrong Phoenix guard will resort to something that will get him benched.

Although his shot IQ can be brought into question, Okobo is incapable of making tough contested shots. He has a nice step-back and pull-up jump shot he uses in isolation, and is dangerous as the ball handler in the pick and roll. Playmaking is often secondary for the young Frenchman. Webster should pressure him hard and force him to distribute the ball, where he often turns the ball over.

Like Okobo, Corey Webster is a scoring oriented guard. Webster likes to do his damage from long range and often looks to take his opponents on in isolation situations. Given the big bodies Phoenix has, it will be a challenge for Webster to penetrate into the paint and score from close range. The Breakers will need Webster to inflict some long-range damage if they are to have a chance of winning.

Richard vs. Daniels

With Booker out, the likely replacement is three-point specialist Troy Daniels. Swingman Josh Jackson is also a strong candidate. However, unlike Jackson, Daniels gives the Phoenix starting five some perimeter firepower, a skill Jackson is yet to develop fully.

With an accuracy of 40.1% from beyond the three-point line, Daniels is fantastic a floor spacer. He forces the defence to thin out, giving more space for his teammates to operate in.

Daniels is not just a spot up shooter either. He is rarely still on offence, and is constantly looking for the dribble hand-off from the Suns’ big men to get a quick open look at the basket. This is something Patrick Richard needs to be constantly aware of. Richard is going to have to stick close to his man through screens and have a hand ready to put in Daniel’s face.

The Breakers are going to have a tough time in the paint against Phoenix’s bigs, so they can’t afford to concede too many threes and have salt rubbed in the wound. New Zealand is going to need Richard to make the Daniel’s long-range game as difficult as possible.

Richard will also need to pay close attention in transition when guarding Daniels. The Phoenix guard is not afraid of the launching transition threes.

Richard has the ability to play a similar role for the Breakers. He is an athletic playmaker who is very reliable from range. The Breakers will be desperate for their guards to spread the floor for the rest of the team. So, much like Webster, Richard will need to be in form from behind the three-point line to disperse the Sun’s bigs out to the perimeter.

Abercrombie vs. Warren

TJ Warren is a young and athletic forward who uses his physical gifts to score the ball in close. Unlike many starting small forwards in the NBA, Warren is not a natural shooter. Instead, he uses his size and speed to slash his way to the basket.

Last year 91.5% of Warren’s field goal attempts came from inside the three-point line, and when he did venture out beyond the arc he only made 20 of his 90 attempts. Warren has a strong preference for close and mid-range scoring, rarely shooting from more than five metres away from the hoop, making the Phoenix forward somewhat predictable on offence

For Tom Abercrombie is will be a matter of protecting the driving lanes. Warren has a strong affinity to go right when he drives to the basket. The slower and less athletic Abercrombie will have a hard time stopping Warren if he allows him to use his dominant side at will. If Abercrombie can force him onto his non-preferred side it could help to force the ball out of his opponent’s hands.

Unlike his Phoenix opponent, Abercrombie is at home operating on the perimeter. However, he is coming off his worst three-point shooting year of his NBL career, making only 32%. If the Breakers’ small-ball lineup is to be effective on Thursday they are also going to need him to have a good night from long-range.

The Breakers are likely to look for quick transition buckets and try and out-run Phoenix after turnovers or defensive rebounds. Abercrombie will need to work hard to get his spots quickly when guarded by the athletic Warren.

Given Warren’s athleticism Armani Moore is a strong contender to start over Abercrombie, and Abercrombie could instead add some firepower to the bench.

Wesley vs. Anderson

Although beyond his prime, Ryan Anderson is still one of the better stretch forwards in the NBA, and given the opportunity, can rain down fire from three-point range. Whilst not being the most athletic player on the court, his combination of size, skill, composure and court awareness makes him an extremely valuable new addition for Phoenix.

Heading into his eleventh season in the NBA, Anderson has seen a slight slump in his scoring output, but has remained consistent in almost every other area of his game. At 208cm tall he is a tough cover for defenders on the perimeter, and due to his sheer size is a trusty rebounder.

Anderson is an interesting assignment for the tough-as-nails Tai Wesley. Wesley is a great defender, and will certainly make Anderson earn his points. However, due to his proficiency with the long ball, Wesley will have to respect Anderson’s shot at all times, stretching the undersized Breakers even further on defence. If Wesley is forced to close out on Anderson, he will need to be immediately ready to turn and fight for a rebound.

The Phoenix forward does have height advantage that may come into effect in the rebounding department. At 201cm, Wesley is undersized as a power forward against larger NBA level competition, so he will need to use his strength and positioning ability to help the Breakers stay alive on the rebounding front.

New Zealand needs to fight as hard as they can to prevent Phoenix getting second chance opportunities. Securing possession of the ball following missed Phoenix shots will be one of Wesley’s biggest and most difficult tasks.

Long vs. Ayton

Deandre Ayton is likely to prove a huge obstacle for the Breakers on Thursday. Drafted with the number one overall pick at this year’s NBA draft, the 216cm and 113kg Ayton is a physical specimen. At only 20 years of age he is still very raw in certain areas of his game, yet despite his youth, his sheer size and athletic ability is certain to give New Zealand some major headaches.

Down low in the post, Ayton has demonstrated the ability to score with both hands, with an impressive repertoire of moves for his age. In addition to his height, Ayton also has a 226cm wingspan, allowing him to score over his defender.

Ayton's height also makes him a target for lob passes - even with the ball thrown vaguely in his direction, he has the length to be able to reel it in and score. The Phoenix big man's offensive game isn’t limited to under the basket or in the post either, with the big man from the Bahamas also has a good midrange game.

The Breakers have a big challenge containing the Sun’s young centrepiece. At 206cm and 112kg, American import Shawn Long is New Zealand’s biggest player, and therefore the most likely candidate to match up against Ayton. Long has some NBA experience, having played 18 games with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2016/17 season. Even that small amount of practice against NBA level opposition will be valuable for the Breakers.

Long is quick and has good leaping ability. His mobility and capacity to play fast paced basketball suits the Breakers’ play style. He is a good finisher and can roll to the rim quickly. However, Ayton’s size and athleticism is a major counter to Long’s strengths. Perth struggled against Gobert last Saturday; we could see something similar here.