After the Glen Rice Jr fiasco, New Zealand Breakers head coach, Dan Shamir sounded like a man desperate to talk about basketball in his post-game presser. He was more than eager for the on-court product to be his primary focus for the first time in weeks.
"We’ve been through a lot.”
You’d be forgiven for mistaking Shamir for Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption. If anyone in the NBL has crawled through 500 yards of excrement this season, it’s been Shamir and the Breakers. But now, much like Dufresne, the Breakers may have found their way out on the other side, ready to thrive in a world suddenly illuminated by hope.
For Breakers fans, hope should be in abundance after Monday night’s 96-85 victory over the Brisbane Bullets. It’s easy to forget because of all the off-court shenanigans, but the Breakers have been hit with a comical amount of injuries since day one. Because of RJ Hampton’s mysterious hip injury, the Breakers still haven’t played a solitary game with the entire roster available. Scotty Hopson, regarded by some as the best player in the league, has played just six games, with New Zealand now a respectable 3-3 in those fixtures.
Monday night showed the Breakers at their healthiest yet, and they closely resembled the extremely versatile two-way machine they were touted to be.
On defence, with the athletic forward combination of Hopson and Finn Delany finally playing together, the Breakers, at various points during the game, were able to switch virtually every screen. With their lack of dynamic off-the-dribble shot creators, Brisbane struggled to exploit this strategy and generate consistent offence. Brandon Ashley, in particular, did a phenomenal job of switching on to Brisbane’s guards — his quick feet forced the Bullets into a ton of possessions which ran late into the shot clock. The Bullets registering just 11 assists on 33 made baskets shows just how good the Breakers were at forcing them into late shot clock, one-on-one basketball. Lamar Patterson wound up with a brilliant, season-high 36-point effort, but Shamir will be happy with a lot of the off the dribble jumpers they forced him into.
On the other end of the floor, the Breakers showed off their full collection of weapons. The sheer quantity of offensive talent the Breakers possess shone through — Shamir’s side attacked the Bullets from every conceivable angle. Even without Hampton (their chief penetrator) in the rotation, New Zealand found their way to the rim at will. The Breakers got to the line 32 times throughout the contest, primarily due to their consistent assaults on the basket. Delany (who straight up murdered Will Magnay) and Hopson were especially impressive in this regard.
When the Breakers weren’t attacking the basket, Webster was tearing the Bullets up in the pick and roll game. Brisbane managed to clog the Breakers’ offence up in the first quarter with their zone defence, but as soon as Webster was introduced, that machination stood no chance. Monday night saw Webster at his best — he was electric off the dribble, crafty as hell in the pick and roll, and ceded ball-dominance at the right moments.
With that sort of talent, you simply can’t write the Breakers off just yet.
On the Bullets side, this result won’t silence any of the doubters. The calls for import changes won’t stop and at 6-8, they sit a couple of games behind where they need to be. However, for Brisbane, it’s easy to chalk this one up as a schedule loss. Backing up after flying across the Tasman with just one day’s rest is about as rough as it gets in the NBL.
On top of this, the Bullets generated pretty good looks in this game but just didn’t hit enough of them to win. The Bullets went just 6 for 25 from long-range against New Zealand and are drilling three-point shots at a below-average rate this season. Brisbane had a ton of makeable looks from deep that they should be making — Jason Cadee, Reuben Te Rangi, and Cameron Gliddon, all among the most prolific shooters in the league, combined make just one of their nine attempts.
Lemanis summed it up nicely when he said, “We’re in a position now where we’ve got to make some shots.”
This particular loss tells us a lot more about the Breakers than it does about Lemanis’ Bullets. Even so, Brisbane sit eighth in net rating and their offence is languishing. It’s not time to panic just yet, but that time might be approaching quickly. While their three-point shooting should start to improve with the quality of looks they’re getting, the constant defensive miscommunication and confusion has to be worrying for Bullets fans. Lemanis’ side experienced frequent defensive breakdowns, which stifled any chance of a comeback.
Nathan Sobey’s form is perhaps even more worrying. There were times when it was easy to forget he was on the court on Monday night. Brisbane need him to be a ball-dominant superstar if they are to become the very best version of themselves. Currently, he is nowhere close to that.
Regardless of the narrative that will continue to surround the Bullets for the week to come, the main takeaway from this game should be how brilliant the Breakers were. Now that they are as close to full fitness as they’ve been all season long and their off-court problems are starting to evaporate, the Breakers look dangerous. They have the roster to make a real push for a top-four spot. They have the star power, versatility, and two-way ability they need to beat anyone on their day. They will only get better with more precious time together, as well — remember, because of their USA trip, they didn’t even really have a proper preseason together.
It’s going to take a lot for the Breakers to get past all the off-court drama, but performing as they did on Monday night is going to go a long way to forcing us to look at what's happening on the court.