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R19 Preview: New Zealand v Melbourne

Who: New Zealand Breakers v Melbourne United When: 5.30pm (AEDT), Friday 12 February Where: North Shore Events Centre, Auckland Watch: Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ; NBL Live App Last time they met: New Zealand 80 (Webster 39, Cedric Jackson 10) d Melbourne 69 (Goulding 19, Holt 17, Kickert 13), Round 7, Vector Arena, Auckland THE MATCH-UP Cedric Jackson v Stephen Holt – Jackson’s back to his brilliant best, averaging 20.5 points, 7.3 assists and 6.8 boards in his past four games, while Holt has averaged 19 points at 49 per cent from long range in his past six. THE STATS Against the Breakers, Holt has shot 31 per cent and had six assists in two contests, compared to Jackson’s 48 per cent and 15 assists. In their four championship years, after the calendar hit February the Breakers’ record was 35-10, including playoffs. So far this February they are 2-0. THE STORY Anyone who listened to Corey Webster’s post-game interview last Sunday would know the Breakers don’t just enter this week’s double against Melbourne with confidence, but also with genuine belief. “We’re more relaxed, we’ve been here before at this end of the season and we know how much it means to get into great form coming into playoffs,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of experience so we’re just going to keep on riding that.” Sky TV host Dennis Katsanos said they are “playing like a different team” than the version that recently lost seven of nine games, while commentator Casey Frank said “we’re seeing some enthusiasm from them once again.” The Breakers are looking like defending champions, but more importantly their key players are performing that way too. Webster has averaged 23 points at 58 percent the past two games after notching just 15.2 at 30 per cent the six before that. Cedric Jackson’s assist-to-turnover ratio has gone from 21:20 in a six-game holiday-period stretch to 27:6 in his past four. After averaging 8.0 points at 33 per cent and 4.8 boards in four games to open the New Year, Tom Abercrombie has unleashed 18ppg at 46 per cent and 8.0rpg in his past four. It has been quite the transformation, helped by a sudden return to powerful old ways by centre Alex Pledger, who has averaged 10.5 points on an improbable 26-of-31 shooting to go with 4.8 boards and 1.3 blocks in just 20 minutes per game over the last half dozen. It makes for a daunting task for Melbourne on Friday night, especially when you consider the Breakers have won eight of their past nine games at the deafening North Shore Events Centre. But after his sojourn in Spain last season, not to mention crucial road wins in Perth and Wollongong in recent weeks, Melbourne’s Chris Goulding isn’t too fazed by the venue. “We had big wins in Bilbao, in Valencia, some of these Spanish hot beds of basketball where the crowds are just mental, they live and die for their teams,” he said. “For most guys you want to play in front of packed houses.” But he also knows Melbourne can’t afford to allow the Breakers to get their running game going, because with a raucous crowd behind the Kiwis the game can slip away quickly. “When we get a bit loose and putting up wild shots I think any team’s going to love playing against that. We’ve got to take good shots, and rebounding’s another massive thing for us,” he said. THE WRAP Two ultra-talented teams with some recent ill-feeling from their controversial Round 5 clash in Melbourne, let the battle begin! Top spot is now secure for United, and while New Zealand’s fate rests in the hands of others, every win helps their chances of claiming fourth place. In the two meetings so far, the Breakers have held Melbourne to 22 per cent from long range while banging 39 per cent themselves, the champs’ ability to stop penetration a key factor. Hakim Warrick has only played 12 minutes against New Zealand, however, and his ability to roll out of on-balls and finish could open up more driving lanes for his guards.

The board work of Majok Majok, Todd Blanchfield and Co is pivotal for Melbourne, because Charles Jackson and Mika Vukona are going to be desperate on the glass, and whether it’s Cedric Jackson or Holt motoring the ball up court off quick outlet passes could have a big impact on the result.

After their holiday-season slump put them down for the count, the Breakers have leapt off the canvas and come into this game swinging with a three-game win streak. If United can down them in Auckland it will be an emphatic statement, but if not a blockbuster awaits in Melbourne on Sunday.

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