Illawarra Hawks v New Zealand Breakers
When: 7.50pm (AEDT), Saturday 9 February
Where: WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
Broadcast: Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ
The last time
Illawarra 107 (Blanchfield 27, Conklin 20, Jett 14, Ogilvy 14) d New Zealand 96 (Weeks 22, Abercrombie 20, Long 17), WIN Entertainment Centre, Round 14
The wheels fell off shortly after three-quarter-time for New Zealand. Tom Abercrombie nailed a trifecta to put them 15 in front and cruising to victory, but the Hawks unleashed a 34-8 run to steal the game. AJ Ogilvy and Emmett Naar got things started, then Jordair Jett, Brian Conklin and Todd Blanchfield finished off the job to the delight of a raucous home crowd.
That was the beginning of the end for the Breakers’ season, falling in Cairns in overtime three nights later as a run of six losses in eight games took hold, sliding them from 8-9 to 10-15. Thursday’s home defeat to Adelaide officially ended their playoff chances, but the last time NZ failed to win more than 10 games was in 2006, so there is still plenty of pride to play for.
If the Hawks win their two remaining games by 35-plus points, Adelaide lose theirs by similar margins and Brisbane drop both of theirs then Illawarra could still make the playoffs. Translation: it’s over. The Hawks have made some serious progress in the second half of the season though, so expect them to bring the heat in front of their loyal fans in their home swansong.
Jordair Jett v Patrick Richard – Jett has averaged 15ppg at 56 per cent and 3 assists against New Zealand, while Richard has responded with 14ppg, 5rpg and 5apg in an enthralling battle of the bench sparkplugs. Jett has nailed 38 per cent from outside since the second week of December, while the Breakers are 4-0 when Patrick hits 75 per cent or better from deep. They’re also 8-8 when he plays 20 minutes or more, and 2-7 when he doesn’t.
Todd Blanchfield v Tom Abercrombie – It was the small forward show last time this pair met, Abercrombie with 20 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists, Blanchfield with 27 points, 7 boards and 3 steals. Tom’s managed just 35 points in the six games since, though, while Todd’s had just 36 points and 12 boards in his past four. Who will break the drought on Saturday?
Brian Conklin v Tai Wesley – After shaping as an All-NBL First Team candidate, Wesley has managed a mere 36 points, 10 rebounds and 4 dimes in his past four games, the Breakers suffering as a result. The Conk had been finishing the season strong with 34 points, 14 boards and 6 assists last round, but in Thursday’s moment of need he managed just 10 points at 30 per cent, 3 caroms and no helpers. These are two proud athletes, how will they respond?
AJ Ogilvy v Shawn Long – While this hasn’t been Ogilvy’s best season, he’s liked the Breakers, averaging 13.5ppg, 7.5rpg and 2spg in the season series. Long dominated AJ and Co with 26 points and 14 boards the first time around, but the Hawks made him priority number one in Round 14, holding the superstar centre to 17 points and a season-low 3 boards.
New Zealand have averaged 16 turnovers per game against the Hawks. They give up just 10.8 per game to the rest of the competition.
The Breakers have averaged 12 made triples at 39 per cent against Illawarra, up from 9.7 treys at 35 per cent against all other teams coming into this round.
The Hawks allow opponents more three-point makes (11.2) and attempts (29.9) than any team in the NBL. Adelaide is the only other team that allows double-figure makes.
Against the Breakers, Illawarra have averaged 25 assists and 30 made two-pointers. Against all other teams those numbers are 19.3 dimes and 24 two-pointers.
It promised so much when it came together, but it came together too late, and Thursday’s loss ended Illawarra’s hopes of a fairytale finish.
“Disappointing first part of the season, we had poor team chemistry and it was nothing to do with they’re bad people, we just didn’t get our stuff together early in the season,” Hawks coach Rob Beveridge said.
“The back half of the season has been fantastic, we’ve beaten every single team in the league.”
Of course, once the dust settles there is a significant difference between a 14-14 season that narrowly misses the playoffs and a 12-16 effort that goes meekly into the night, so the Hawks have set their sights on their back-to-back meetings with the Breakers.
“Obviously there’s a lot of disappointment because we lost and the reality is we’re out,” Beveridge said.
“Right now we have to close out the next two games. We can’t quit, we won’t quit, that’s the mentality that we’re going to go with.”
While the Hawks are a new roster that took a long time to click, New Zealand are a new line-up that never quite clicked consistently, never able to win more than two in a row.
“I’ll never question our team’s heart, sometimes I just question whether our mind’s in the right place,” coach Kevin Braswell said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lost like this in my life. It’s a lot of learning when you lose, when you’re winning it’s easy, it’s easy to sit back and think you’re great.”
It’s been more than a decade since the Breakers only won 10 games in a season, so there is plenty of motivation for Braswell and Co in this mini-series with Illawarra and their season-ending trip to Brisbane.
“The next three games, I told the guys there’s a lot to play for, and number one is just pride, finish the season strong,” he said.
“These next three games are about making sure we leave, every one of us, we leave the right image.”
What Braswell would really like to see much is his team taking care of the small detail that has hurt them so badly in their eight single-figure defeats.
“The little things that are disturbing sometimes, like when you talk about offensive rebounds that we give up,” he said after Thursday’s loss to Adelaide.
“A team is hot, then the ones they’re missing you give up 16 o-boards? Your night’s over … if we come up with five of those it’s a different night.”
He’ll find a sympathetic shoulder to cry on in coach Beveridge, who watched his team’s season slip away on the glass in Brisbane as they also gave up 16 offensive boards.
“We lost the game because of rebounding, 18-2 second chance points just doesn’t get it done,” he said.
“We always look at the one-percenters, all those little things, and when we do that we’re a very good team, but we shot ourselves in the foot.”
And so Saturday night becomes a battle of who can put the disappointment of missing the post-season behind them and get down and dirty in the hustle areas that have such a huge impact on tempo control.
For Hawks veteran Kevin White, it will be about slowing New Zealand’s athletic racehorses, his team 8-2 when they keep opponents below 90 points.
“That’s where we’ve been pretty good in games that we’ve won, keeping teams to low scores, we did it to Perth, Melbourne, we’ve done it to Sydney a couple of times,” he said.
For Breakers import Patrick Richard, it’s simply about doing whatever it takes to taste victory.
“I want to win man, I do not like losing, at any level. Anywhere I’ve been I’ve always been like that, I always want to win, I could score one point I do not care, I just want to win,” he said with genuine passion.
“I said that in the locker room at half-time, I said put your egos aside, who gives a damn who does what, let’s just do it together.”