Breakers Start with a Loss
It was the night the New Zealand Breakers raised their second championship banner, and the Perth Wildcats raised the stakes for the new season.
Revenge, retribution, call it what you want, the Cats made an emphatic statement in their grand final rematch against the back-to-back Australian NBL champions on their home NSEC floor and start this season as the team to beat on the evidence of an impressive 93-72 victory.
It was the sweetest of wins, too, for Rob Beveridge's scrappy, yet exceedingly skilful, team as they not only snapped a four-game losing skid in New Zealand, but exacted minor vengeance on the outfit that's bested them when it's counted the past two seasons.
Having to stand and watch the Breakers unfurl the banner they clinched in April at the end of a memorable final series certainly made the motivation easy, as the visitors were only too happy to confirm afterwards.
"We didn't expect that," said a rapt Cats coach Rob Beveridge of his team's all-too-easy victory. "It was an emotional night, with the unveiling of the banner, a full house, and it's a grand final replay. There was a lot of emotion put into it.
"It was absolutely good for us to be here tonight to see that because I think that makes us a lot hungrier. I'm glad they unveiled it because that just brought our guys together and that's a really important value for our team."
When the banner went up, the Wildcats went into a huddle. Then came out and put 54 first-half points on a Breakers outfit their own coach admitted looked like they were "running in mud".
"We wanted to stay together," said Wildcats guard and league MVP Kevin Lisch. "We stopped our layup line to show of respect for them unveiling it, but at the same time we just wanted to stay together and remember how that felt."
As poor as the Breakers were - and they were atrocious at times in front of a sellout 4000-strong crowd - this was an impressive display from the Cats who didn't show anything particularly new, but just did what they do very, very well.
The visitors brought their A game from the off and once they had opened the lead up over 20 points in the second quarter - courtesy of 18 straight points at one stage - this was never going to have a positive outcome for a Breakers side who looked out of sync all night.
The Cats were led by the usual suspects. The classy Lisch had 20 points on seven-of-13 shooting; big, bad Matt Knight mixed power moves with finesse jumpers en route to 20 points and nine boards; while Shawn Redhage (16 points/four steals), Jesse Wagstaff (14 points/four rebounds) and Damian Martin (nine points and seven boards) did their bits splendidly.
Four third-quarter triples from Cedric Jackson briefly raised home hopes, but the American point guard was a lone ranger as he finished with 19 points (7/16 FG, 5/11 3PT) and six assists . Daryl Corletto was the only other Breaker to hit double-figure scoring, with Tom Abercrombie, CJ Bruton, Alex Pledger and Mika Vukona all performing well below their usual levels. Pledger played 20 minutes and didn't grab a single rebound.
The Breakers were lucky to be down just 20 (34-54) at the major break as the Cats out-shot, out-rebounded, out-hustled and out-played them. It was like watching one team in late-season form playing one still in pre-season mode as that 18-0 second-quarter run saw the Wildcats stretch a seven-point first-quarter lead (27-20) to as many as 25.
"They played with a much better desire and hunger in that game than we did," said Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis. "The first half our defensive energy and effort wasn't where it needs to be -- giving up 54 points. From halfway through that first quarter to pretty much right through that second quarter we played like we were running in mud at stages."
The stats were all in the Cats' favour by halftime. They shot 61 percent from the floor, against 44; they out-rebounded their hosts 19-10; won the points off turnovers 15-2, the steals 8-4; and harried the Kiwis into a miserable one-of-nine shooting from deep.
The Breakers were woeful, butt the Cats were, ominously, very, very good.
And that was the way it pretty much stayed till the end, as the Cats coasted to the easiest of victories. They scored 25 points to five off turnovers (even though both teams had 20 of them); won the rebounds 36-24 and shot an excellent 53 percent, while keeping the Breakers to just 44.
Perth had been mad as hell all off-season after being pipped by the Breakers yet again and though they didn't quite get even on the back of one regular season win, they certainly took a big stride in that direction.
NZ Breakers 72 (Cedric Jackson 19 Daryl Corletto 10), Perth Wildcats 93 (Kevin Lisch 20, Matt Knight 20, Shawn Redhage 16, Jesse Wagstaff 14). 1Q: 20-27; HT: 34-54; 3Q: 58-75.