NZ Breakers 69
Sydney Kings 77
A fairytale finish wasn’t to be for the New Zealand Breakers.
Just one season removed from finishing at the foot of the NBL ladder, the side fought their way back to relevancy through a defence-driven brand of basketball and a group of players buying into what coach Mody Maor wanted to achieve.
Not only did that see the side make the playoffs for the first time since 2018, it took them all the way to game five of the best-of-five championship series.
However, in the battle of one v two on the regular season ladder, the top-seeded Sydney Kings came up trumps, closing out the series with a 77-69 win in the decider in Sydney on Wednesday night.
While the Breakers started hot from the floor, the Kings withstood the early onslaught before their stars stepped up in front of the largest crowd in NBL history. Import guard Derrick Walton Jr was a maestro with ball in hand, finishing with 21 points, six assists and the championship MVP award, while NBA-bound big man Xavier Cooks was a force with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
With one game to decide the series, the Breakers played with a tight rotation. Aside from sixth man of the year Barry Brown Jr, Rob Loe was the only bench player to see a big role. Rayan Rupert and Cam Gliddon were the only others to take to the court, but were used sparingly – combining for about eight minutes.
It was an ideal start for the Breakers. On one end of the floor, they were playing lockdown defence and rebounding the Sydney Kings’ many missed shot attempts. On the other, they were filling the bucket up at a high rate.
To compound the issue for the Kings was foul trouble, with Dejan Vasiljevic and Kouat Noi both picking up two fouls inside the opening six minutes.
While the Kings were struggling across the board, the Breakers were doing the opposite. Will McDowell-White and Jarrell Brantley were making their presence felt on the scoreboard before Barry Brown Jr was injected off the bench and continued the charge. The side made their intentions clear through the opening 10 minutes, with more than 60 per cent of their shot attempts falling to see them double up the Kings’ score and hold the hosts to a season-low 11 points in the first quarter.
It was a smooth start for the Breakers, but one they would have known would eventually take a turn down a rockier terrain.
That turn came in the second quarter as the shots stopped falling and the Kings rode their star duo Xavier Cooks and Derrick Walton Jr right back into the game. While Cooks had his struggles defending Brantley, he made up for it through his offensive production and rebounding, and Walton seemed to find teammates in space and rhythm with frequency.
By halftime, the Breakers’ lead was whittled down from 11 points to just one.
The match was well poised for a grandstand finish and delivered as such.
The third quarter started as the second finished, with the Kings getting to the hoops early to build a four-point lead.
But just as it looked like the defending champions were about to take over, the Breakers refused to let that happen and fought back through some big baskets to Izayah Le’afa and Brown Jr. The sides finished the quarter tied, turning the decider into a 10-minute blitz.
It was the Breakers who took the early advantage, building a three-possession lead with seven minutes to play.
But they didn’t score another point for more than five minutes.
Instead, the Kings went on a 14-0 run to build a seven-point lead of their own, ultimately closing out the series and claiming their second-straight NBL championship.
NZ Breakers 69 (Barry Brown Jr 22 points, Jarrell Brantley 16, Will McDowell-White 12)
Sydney Kings 77 (Derrick Walton Jr 21 points, Xavier Cooks 19, Angus Glover 12, Kouat Noi 11)
1Q: 22-11. HT: 36-35. 3Q: 56-56.