Experienced swingman Tom Abercrombie rates the current New Zealand Breakers line-up every bit as talented as the teams that dominated the NBL during the club’s golden era.
But they don’t have the rings to show for it – at least not yet.
The Breakers won four championships from five grand final appearances over six years under Andrej Lemanis and Dean Vickerman from 2011 to 2016.
A veteran of almost 400 NBL games, Abercrombie is the last player left from that group as the Breakers head into a first title decider since that glittering period of success.
The Auckland-based outfit take on the defending champion Sydney Kings in the best-of-five series, starting on March 3.
“The game has changed a lot in seven years,” Abercrombie said. “This is obviously as good a team as we’ve ever had but that means nothing going into the finals. It’s a battle in itself once you get into a finals series.”
Abercrombie was in his third season when he won the grand final MVP award in 2011, leading the Breakers to their maiden NBL title with victory over the Cairns Taipans.
The Perth Wildcats were then slayed twice as New Zealand claimed a hat-trick of titles and the Taipans were beaten again in 2015, before the West Australian side exacted some revenge on the Breakers in the 2016 decider.
Vickerman’s departure at the end of that season brought about a gradual decline and the Breakers missed the finals for four straight years before Mody Maor took over as coach this season and sent the club back to the future.
“As it was before, the backbone of this team and our identity and culture is a real strong point,” Abercrombie said.
“It’s something that’s carried us through the tough times this year and I’m just very excited to be back on that stage. To get a chance to represent this club in a finals series again is a really, really cool moment to come full circle.
“(After) the last couple of years I never thought I’d be back in this position, so I don’t take it for granted. I’m going to enjoy this moment and go out and have fun.”
Abercrombie puts the Breakers’ strong culture down to the people involved.
“Culture’s not really something you can just wave a magic wand and create, but you put the pieces in place and those pieces are people,” the 35-year-old said. “Mody and the staff have done a terrific job of putting good people in place.
“Even when you do that it doesn’t necessarily all work out. But the chemistry from day one of pre-season was like a team that has played together for a very, very long time.”
Abercrombie noted one element he and the Breakers have never confronted in an NBL grand final series – the best-of-five format.
Each of the Breakers’ five previous championship deciders were best-of-three.
“Best-of-five’s a different animal,” Abercrombie said. “You’ve already got tactical battles and back-and-forth in a best-of-three and I’m sure in a best-of-five it gets taken to another level.”
Breakers end Tassie’s season
Barry Brown Jr’s brilliance has catapulted the New Zealand Breakers into their first NBL grand final since 2015 with a 92-77 victory over the Tasmania JackJumpers in Game 3 of the semifinals.
Recently voted the NBL’s Best Sixth Man, Brown (32 points) stimulated the Breakers out of a cold start at Auckland’s Spark Arena on Sunday and into a best-of-five championship series with reigning champions Sydney.
Big Dererk Pardon (15 points, 13 rebounds) led a dominant display on the boards by the Breakers, who hit an astonishing 24-of-24 free throws to end the JackJumpers’ fairytale dream of two grand finals in two years.
The result continues a remarkable, rags-to-riches turnaround by the Breakers, who secured last year’s wooden spoon while unable to play any home games in NZ due to border restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jack McVeigh (22 points) led the charge for the JackJumpers, who started brightly but spluttered down the stretch.
“The two best teams are in the (grand) final,” JackJumpers coach Scott Roth said. “They were just better than us tonight … they wore us down a little bit, but we’re onto bigger and better things. I’m super proud of our group.”
The Breakers were awful early, unable to buy a bucket and falling behind 13-2 before Brown came on and sparked their fightback.
Providing steals, assists and scoring punch off the bench, Brown masterrminded a 14-0 burst either side of quartertime to turn a 25-17 deficit into a 31-25 lead.
After pulling ahead 49-42 at halftime after their commanding 28-17 second term, the Breakers stretched their buffer to 15 points on Brown’s brilliance midway though the third.
McVeigh and Rashard Kelly made significant inroads into the deficit, closing the third period with a 16-4 run to slice NZ’s lead to three points at three-quarter-time.
Jarrell Brantley fouled out for the Breakers midway through the fourth stanza but Pardon’s rebounding and Brown’s panache proved decisive late as NZ stamped their authority.
“I’m very happy and proud,” Breakers coach Mody Maor said. “I’ll stay happy and proud today and get to work tomorrow. There’s nothing in the world I’m looking forward to more (than the grand final).”
Kings conquer tired Taipans
A fourth-quarter defensive masterclass has propelled the Sydney Kings into their second successive NBL grand final with a 79-64 victory over the Cairns Taipans.
The reigning champions saw their 11-point second-quarter lead reduced to two early in the fourth period of Game 3 at Qudos Bank Arena on Sunday before shutting the Taipans out down the stretch, outscoring them 17-6 in the final term.
Dejan Vasiljevic (15 points) rediscovered his shooting touch when it mattered, aided by fellow guard Derrick Walton Jr (10 points, nine assists), while captain Xavier Cooks (11 points, 11 rebounds) shrugged off his Game 2 ankle injury.
Reserve guard Ben Ayre (20 points) did what Jonah Antonio (Game 1) and Lat Mayen (Game 2) did earlier in the series, stepping up as a surprise packet for the undermanned Taipans, with Shannon Scott (hamstring) and Keanu Pinder (fractured eye socket) sidelined.
Sam Waardenburg (17 points, 12 rebounds) was tremendous but the Snakes didn’t receive the usual impact from imports DJ Hogg and Tahjere McCall.
“We just got hot for a quarter in the end and that was pretty much the difference,” Kings coach Chase Buford said.
“I thought Justin Simon on DJ Hogg was an elite performance defensively, which was a key, and the way X (Cooks) guarded McCall really helped us.”
Walton Jr’s dazzling, mid-air, no-look assist for Vasiljevic’s first triple of the series gave Sydney the early edge before Ayre spearheaded an 11-0 burst to give Cairns a 26-20 quarter-time lead.
The Kings got right on top at both ends with a 28-13 second term to pull ahead 48-39 at halftime. The tension was palpable just before the long break when Cooks exchanged pleasantries with Ayre and McCall.
Cooks and Ayre clashed again late in the third stanza. Sydney’s lead was sliced to 62-58 at the end of the third quarter as Waardenburg and Ayre piloted a Cairns rearguard.
Waardenburg’s bucket in the opening 30 seconds of the fourth reduced the margin to two points but the Taipans, playing their fifth game in 11 days having to take the scenic route from the seeding qualifier, ran out of gas. Cairns missed their last 13 field goals while Vasiljevic broke the Taipans’ back – and his own slump – with back-to-back triples down the stretch to seal victory.
“My level of disappointment is not in the sense of how we shot or anything along those lines,” Cairns coach Adam Forde said.
“There were signs of fatigue, dudes are carrying injuries … I can’t fault the fellas. They put up so much fight. Proud of them.”