This was only practice but the two team-mates were jawing at each other like the fiercest of rivals. CJ Bruton was back and his return couldn't have come at a better time for the NZ Breakers.

When the veteran guard pulled the pin on his injured knee last month and headed for rehab, everyone wondered how his team would cope without him.

After all, he was the life and soul of the party, a talisman and the lone survivor of a guard rotation that won the Australian National Basketball League last season.

The initial answer was they'd do just fine. Back-up shooter Daryl Corletto would step into Bruton's starting role, averaging 18.6 points as the Breakers reeled off a five-game winning streak. But now they've hit a rut in their title defence - two big road losses - Bruton's return from the weights room is much needed.


His cheeky and ongoing exchange with American point guard Cedric Jackson - it was a foul, no it wasn't - announced he was back to up the ante. It was an example of how one person can come in and subtly call out his team-mates to raise the level of a group that had lapsed into bad habits.

Bruton actually took the court for last week's 17-point collapse against the Cairns Taipans, hitting a couple of three-pointers in a lost cause. There's always some reshuffling of deckchairs whenever anyone joins (or rejoins) the line-up, so you'd hope his next showing goes more smoothly for all involved.

"Me and DC [Corletto] obviously play the same position and share minutes," he says. "Going into the game, I felt that might need an adjustment and whoever gets hot gets to play a little bit more. That's something we've got to work out on the fly now."

But, overall, Bruton's addition is a boost at a time when coach Andrej Lemanis needs one. The seeds to this slump were sown during Bruton's absence, so his comeback is a chance to rectify some issues.

"We tend to go through periods where we're very good at our execution," says Lemanis. "Then we start running things at 90 per cent, rather than 100 per cent. We start taking shortcuts, so we need to go back, settle it all down and go back to basics.

"But you can feel the confidence coming back in the group again. Certainly, CJ's swagger is infectious with the rest of the group, and I think they've been real competitive and in a good spot."

Today's roadie against the Melbourne Tigers looms as a pivotal fixture.The Breakers have lost their spot atop the competition table and would slip another place with a loss this week.

They've already dropped one season series - to Cairns, the team they beat in last year's final - and would concede a second to another bona fide contender if they slip up across the Tasman against the Tigers. Perhaps most importantly, the Breakers desperately need to recapture the road form that proved so vital in their march to the title.

That's not quite how Lemanis sees it: "I never put too much on those sorts of things," he muses. "What happens if we lose? Is it the end of our season? We can't put that kind of emphasis on any one game. What are we going to do, play harder? For us, it's about getting back to what we do as a basketball team and doing it well."

You can't blame Lemanis for downplaying the occasion.

During the course of any season, teams must manage their emotional rollercoaster ride - no highs too high, no lows too low and never look too far past the next game. Besides, it's barely halfway through this season and, at 4-4, the Breakers still have one of the better away records in the league.

But last season, they were kings of the road (10-4) and when they absolutely had to beat the Wildcats - the best home team - in Perth to keep their semifinal hopes alive, that knowledge was powerful. While their season won't live or die on this result, it's an ideal opportunity to reclaim some missing mojo.