The Brisbane Bullets drew first blood in the three-game pre-season series with the Breakers, winning the opener 80-70 in front of a packed ASB Arena in Tauranga tonight as the new look Breakers took to the court for the first time in just their third week of the pre-season.
In the first of three games with games to follow in Napier (Thursday) and Invercargill (Saturday), Alex Pledger did not suit up for the Breakers, the big centre has missed the last couple of training sessions with a minor quad strain and while not serious, he was not risked in the first pre-season hit out of a long season.
Young Australian Izzy Tueta was however thrown straight into the action, despite arriving the day before the game and having not trained at all with the full roster, the point guard was not held back as he looks to play catch up on the play book ahead of the season opener on October 7 at Vector Arena.
Head Coach Paul Henare summed up what he described as your usual first up performance of a pre-season.
"In many ways that was a typical first up performance, we were a bit rusty, we wasted too many possessions, had some confusion on the floor at times and didn't shoot the ball well. There was plenty to like as well, but we will be much better with that game under our belts for sure.
"What hurt me most was we got kicked on the boards, we will address that in video but we have to make a more concentrated effort to look after the boards, we have the guys to do the job but for some reason it did not happen tonight. We don't want to be that team, I want this team to be a team that dominates on the boards. That is one of the most disappointing things, you don't need time together to get that done."
The game opened with both sides efficient in their scoring, especially the Breakers who were shooting the ball at over 80% for much of the opening quarter. Brisbane were going toe to toe with the home side though and led 24-23 at the first break, best for the Breakers Tom Abercrombie and Corey Webster with 5 points apiece while Tueta drained his first three in a Breakers uniform off the bench.
If the first quarter was a little too loose defensively for both coaches liking, the second saw the game tighten up a little as defensive pressure was upped and offensive accuracy fell away while the foul count mounted, in particular for the Breakers who finished the half with 14 team fouls to Brisbane's 9, with the Bullets making 10 of 14 from the charity stripe to keep them in the game at 37 all at the main break.
Webster took 8 points into the halftime break, supported by 6 from Abercrombie, Loe and Vukona, albeit Rob Loe had picked up three fouls and plenty of bench time as a result. Kirk Penney was unable to find his range, shooting just 1 of 7 in the first half.
That foul trouble soon got worse for the Breakers, with Loe picking up his fourth inside the first minute of the second half and Mika Vukona picking up his third and fourth with more than 7 minutes still to play in the third quarter, forcing both to sit for long periods.
In the absence of Loe and Vukona and with Pledger not playing, the Breakers were having their issues shutting down the Bullets big men, with Tom Jervis and Anthony Petrie in particular benefiting from some mismatches.
A succession of Breakers misses and Bullets rebounds saw Brisbane stretch the lead out to 57-45 and with 2:22 left to play in the third, Coach Henare called timeout to address a six point run by the visiting side. Whatever was said had an impact with the Breakers going on a 7-2 run to end the quarter in touch at 52-59.
With Vukona and Loe continuing to watch from the bench Akil Mitchell stepped up with his best quarter of the game, making and blocking shots in a high energy display.
The final quarter saw the Breakers offence continue to struggle though, with the home side unable to mount any concerted pressured on Brisbane. The Breakers lost their range from beyond the three point line in particular, making just 2 of 12 in the second half. That combined with a poor return from the free throw line of 12 from 24.
The Breakers did however show the fight that will be expected under Henare's watch, making a run from 15 points down with five minutes to play to finish ten behind at the final hooter. And there was plenty for Henare to enjoy in what was the first hit out for his roster in a six week pre-season.
"We played some good defence at times there tonight and Izzy came on and proved his worth - my first comment to the other coaches was 'I can't believe this guy hasn't had a contract before' and he has only been here with us for a few days.
"All guys had their moments in the game and stepped up and played well in patches. Akil was good, he took a while to get his rhythm but when Rob picked up his early fouls he played some big minutes and he seemed to get more comfortable the longer he was on the floor. Obviously Pledger comes in and changes things for us, he will be touch and go for Hawkes Bay but when he is healthy he will have a big impact on our rotation.
"The crowd was great and sensed us getting some momentum at times and played their part in what was a great turnout and atmosphere here in Tauranga, we hope to get more of the same in Napier and Invercargill and put on improved performances for those crowds."
Mitchell led scoring for the Breakers with 15 points (7 of 10) in a strong second half showing blighted only by some struggles at the free throw line, while Webster had 13 points on 5 of 17 shooting and Abercrombie a more efficient 11 points on 3 of 7 from the floor.
For the Bullets Torrey Craig lit up in the second half to lead all scorers with 20 points and had good support from Jervis (12), Mitch Young (12) and Petrie (10).
New Zealand Breakers 70
Mitchell 15, Webster 13, Abercrombie 11
Brisbane Bullets 80
Craig 20, Jervis 12, Young 12, Petrie 10