No captain Mika Vukona. That was the first post-match response from Melbourne United coach Dean Vickerman when asked what he made of the first pre-season hit out against the New Zealand Breakers in Napier yesterday.
"Obviously without Mika not being there it was interesting what kind of line up they were going to throw out there to start with," Vickerman reflected after his team went down 88-86 in the Australian National Basketball League (ANBL) match at the Pettigrew-Green Arena, Taradale.
"They went to a small-ball group, which is something that we've faced with Sydney and something we have to get better at defending," said the former New Zealand NBL coach, lamenting a first-quarter lapse from his troops but pleased with how Melbourne got their act together in the remaining three spells.
Breakers coach Paul Henare said there was no cloak-and-dagger stuff but power forward Vukona had to attend the funeral of a friend.
"We'll pick him up in Auckland on our way to Taranaki [today]," said Henare of the Fiji-born hardman who will play in the second match against Melbourne United in New Plymouth tomorrow.
He accepted Vukona's unavailability prompted the Breakers to look outside the square by starting Thomas Abercrombie at No 4 (power forward).
"It's not something we've done a lot of in the past but it's something we could possibly look at heading into the end of the season."
Consequently Henare felt his undersized men yesterday had competed quite well at times but, without doubt, Vukona's return would provide that much-needed impetus on the inside.
Did both teams just hold back a little?
Henare thought neither side did although they were probably going through a "figuring-out" phase.
"They have a new coach with Deano and so they have a new system and we've got a couple of new players."
However, the Tall Blacks coach felt there was some rustiness and missed combinations and timing on few aspects of play from both teams.
"We need those big contests to be pushed and I'm sure Melbourne would want that from us as well."
Dominican Republic import point guard Edgar Sosa, who sat out the ANBL Blitz tourney last week due to a few niggles, scored a match-high 21 points for the Breakers with guard Shea Ili backing up with 14, small forward Finn Delany 13 and centre Alex Pledger adding 11 and eight rebounds.
"Edgar was the first one to admit he wanted to be coming out of the blocks so he wanted to be on the court and play more because it's a new competition for him, a new style and new teammates," said Henare, on casting a glance at the match statistics to realise Sosa had played 32 minutes.
He was equally complimentary of home boys Ili and Delany.
"They are well aware of the opportunities in front of them this [season] in terms of minutes so we need them to perform so this is just an extension for them on understanding their roles in the team and where they fit in this competition.
"I've said to them publicly that their challenge is going to be in their consistency and on keeping their performances at a high level."
With Pledger only arriving from his mother's wedding on Saturday night, Henare opted to start Robbie Loe but with shooting guard Kirk Penney and Abercrombie falling into early foul trouble it meant Loe's minutes were limited to first and final quarters.
"The guy got some opportunities and really stepped up."
Vickerman said it was their first game together with import guard Casey Prather and David Anderson so "teething problems" were a given.
"Our challenge in two days [is to] make some adjustments for a better performance," he said, anticipating a tight affair and not surprised the Breakers came to the party.
It did bother him a little that his players found a little too much down the stretch.
"Executions out of timeouts were pretty good down the stretch and Casper showed how hard he is to defend on the open court there," he said of import point guard Casper Ware Jr, who scored 14 points.
Forward Chris Goulding scored 18 points, small forward Prather collected 16 and Wesley added 13.
Vickerman laughed when asked how some had ordained his side pre-season favourites after winning the ANBL Blitz tourney in Victoria last week.
"Everyone knows we've recruited pretty well and we have some good talent on our roster but, you know, every team is great in this league right now.
"You can't just turn up and I thought we did for five minutes in the first quarter when we struggled to defend and that was enough for them to get a good margin."
He said everyone also had three good imports, other than the Breakers, but he felt home-court advantage was going to be crucial this season.
It came down to the wire but the New Zealand Breakers gave a glimpse of what they have in store for avid basketball fans in the upcoming Australasian competition, with a win in Napier today.
Henare relished promoting the game in his hometown with a session at PG Arena on Saturday with fans, aspiring amateur players and mentors.
"Obviously it costs money to come out here but for me it's special to come home so we really appreciate the community and funding support we need to do these things," said the former Napier Boys' High School pupil whose side will host the Brisbane Bullets in Tauranga in their final pre-season game on September 27.
Henare, a former Taylor Corporation Hawks captain/coach, said the smiles on the faces of the children on Saturday.
"They just love the time they get to stand in front of their idols who they only get to see on TV," he said, adding the time with Bay coaches was equally fruitful.