Basketball: Breakers-Perth far from dead rubber

By Kris Shannon

The Breakers' exceptional regular season draws to a close this weekend. Photo / Getty Images.
The Breakers' exceptional regular season draws to a close this weekend. Photo / Getty Images.

Tongues would have been wagging at league headquarters when the Australian NBL schedule produced a clash between Perth and the Breakers on the final weekend of the season.

The defending champions against the team they conquered to take the title. Two teams who genuinely dislike each other. The competition's best rivalry for the last couple of seasons, cresting with an epic encounter to establish the top dog before the playoffs.

The reality, though, will see tomorrow night's game at Perth Arena (tipoff midnight NZT) produce a watered-down version of the rivalry.

Both teams sealed their playoff fate long ago, while the Breakers clinched a third straight minor premiership and home advantage in the playoffs with a couple of weeks to spare.

As the only sides in the competition with winning records, the game could be deemed the definition of a dead rubber. It is a mere curtain-raiser before, if the predictions hold true, the teams meet for the main event in next month's grand final series.

But therein lies the intrigue. Neither side will be willing to take a backward step and potentially provide the other any kind of edge heading into the playoffs. At the same time, though, there will be wariness about revealing one's hand too early and wasting the perfect plan on a glorified warm-up game.

The balance both sides try to find between those duelling objectives will be what makes tomorrow night's meeting worth watching. It will be much more tactically acute than the blood-and-thunder battles the Breakers and Wildcats usually produce.

"Everybody loves playing against Perth, especially over there,'' said power forward Mika Vukona, who has overcome his ankle injury and will take the court. "Perth are not going to go easy on us, and we aren't either.

"Any kind of psychological advantage that you can gain going into the playoffs is good. Nobody likes losing to Perth, they don't like losing to us. It's going to get pretty emotional over there.''

Andrej Lemanis, not one to be ruled by emotions, has already said he intends to play his strongest side, though that is more about maintaining a winning rhythm than getting one-up on counterpart Rob Beveridge, his chief opponent for the vacant Australian job.

And that winning rhythm, which has produced 16 straight victories, may itself provide the Breakers motivation. The players and coaching staff are at pains to tell you only one number matters - a certain three-peat of championships - but an unbeaten streak
stretching more than 100 days does lend itself to preservation.

If the Breakers beat Perth tomorrow and run the table in the playoffs, the second of those series sweeps would be the Breakers' 21st consecutive win, tying the all-time league record. That would be some exclamation mark on their sustained stretch of success.

"Everyone wants to keep that streak alive,'' Vukona said. "We want to go into the playoffs with a winning streak. There's no point going through this whole run then losing the last game.''

Vukona, who was this week nominated for best defensive player in the annual awards, found another reason for fans to tune into the final regular season game. It will be the latest stop on the retiring Dillon Boucher's farewell tour and, although the veteran could get one last taste of the wild west in the grand final, Vukona wanted to send his teammate away a winner.

"It would be nice to send Dillon off on a nice note with a final win in the regular season. To win that in Perth, there's nothing sweeter than that, especially for a guy that's played for many years.''

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