New Zealand Breakers 88
Perth Wildcats 84
The New Zealand Breakers have given their greatest indication yet that they will be the team to beat in the Australian National Basketball League.
An 88-84 victory over the Perth Wildcats has moved the Breakers to 7-1, and there's no denying how impressive their recent run has been.
Seven straight wins has seen the Breakers tie their best start in franchise history. Notably, the three pre-season favourites - Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide - have all been conquered, with Perth the latest to fall in a typically tense tussle.
The distance derby is the most even rivalry in the competition - the two sides have shared the last eight ANBL titles, four apiece, and before tonight, were locked at 29 wins each in their head-to-head battle.
Now, Breakers have the edge, both historically and currently, after making the most of their pivotal home advantage. Due to the taxing 5,000 kilometre flight, Perth rarely hit the same highs when they cross the tasman, having now lost eight straight games in New Zealand.
Perth had the early advantage, with Philadelphia 76ers draft pick JP Tokoto showcasing his all-around abilities. While the Breakers don't have a player possessing Tokoto's athleticism, they do possess the depth to match opposition stars.
A mass substitution from Paul Henare saw four of the Breakers' bench mob hit the court, and led by Shea Ili's usual energy they dragged the hosts back into the lead by quarter-time.
Balance is the operative word for the Breakers, and through their core nine players they shared the load handily to start. Perth's standout imports - Tokoto and Bryce Cotton - had combined for 23 points by half-time, but the Breakers had all nine contributors on the scoresheet, none with more than seven points.
Breakers coach Paul Henare praised the impact of his four bench contributors - Rob Loe, Kirk Penney, Finn Delany and Ili, who combined for 40 points.
"They're huge. Every guy that stepped on the floor had a positive impact - they really held the fort. That's our message - when they're on the floor they're out there for a reason, not just to play a role but to have a positive impact and play to their strengths, which is probably the main thing we try to focus on. Once again they were great for us."
The contrasting styles created a level contest for most of the encounter. The Breakers' offence wasn't firing on all cylinders, but they once again had an important advantage on the glass (41-33), and shot well from deep (9/20).
17 of their 41 rebounds were of the offensive variety, giving the Breakers a glut of extra possessions to create offensive opportunities
As a result, the Breakers built their lead out to a seven-point buffer through three quarters, and a fourth-quarter flurry from DJ Newbill made sure they wouldn't be caught.
Their next challenge is to overcome their own difficulties at winning in Perth, and claim a victory in when the teams meet again on Sunday.
Henare knows how tough that clash will be.
"It doesn't get any bigger than playing the defending champs on their home floor. We'll go over there with confidence - it's going to be tough, Perth are going to want to bounce back, but I know we have a group that will enjoy that challenge."
Regardless of how successful their Perth trip may be, the Breakers have shown that they are here to stay.
Breakers 88 (DJ Newbill 17, Kirk Penney 14)
Wildcats 84 (Bryce Cotton 26, JP Tokoto 15)