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The Legend of Mika

Mika Vukona’s status as one of the NBL’s all-time greats grew even larger last night during Game One of the Swisse NBL Finals in Melbourne. With the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Finals shrinking some, the New Zealand Breakers captain revelled in the moment. Vukona’s vintage all-around performance and inspirational leadership guided the defending Champions to their 10th consecutive Finals win and a 1-0 advantage over Melbourne United. It was clear from the outset last night that Mika meant business. Of course he did, the man knows how to win Finals games better than almost anyone, ever. Focus, hustle, communicate, stay in the moment.  Play every possession – every loose ball – on its merits and push yourself further than your opponent’s willing to go. It’s a formula that's brought the five-time Champion more success than almost anybody in NBL history. A formula that last night drove Vukona to put up 11 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals (the first player to reach these stats in the playoffs since Sam Mackinnon in 2004) and, as Fox Sports broadcaster Dan Ewing said post-game, “a whole lot of toughness.” For Mika, it was simply another night at the office. “I’m just doing my job really,” Vukona said post-game. “I know it’s cliché, but at this time you’ve just got to do your job right and let everybody else work it in. Things just kind of came my way tonight.” Humble as always, but not entirely accurate. Mika forced the issue last night, he made his own luck. “I thought Mika really set the tone in the first quarter,” head coach Dean Vickerman said post-game. “His ability to grab offensive rebounds, get deflections and run the break… he was absolutely everywhere.” Mika’s influence on the Breakers is a remarkable thing to observe, both on and off the court. His presence is like a protective arm-around-the-shoulder for his team. In many ways, he’s more father-figure than team-mate. The last-minute address he delivered right before tip-off gave chills to those nearby and helped propel the Breakers to a 17-point first-quarter lead. “[Mika] shows that leadership and everybody listens to him,” star guard Corey Webster said last night. “Especially when he gets fired up.” Truth is, Mika ‘fires up’ only when necessary... it’s usually not required. Take Wednesday evening for example, when the Breakers rose early from the League’s Awards Night and made their way to the exits, keen for an early bedtime ahead of last night’s Game One. With Webster one of the strong MVP chances – and that award still to be announced – a League official chased the Kiwis down and asked them to stay. The Breakers simply pointed at Mika… “Sorry mate, his call.” Then there was the time-out with just under 5 minutes remaining in last night’s final quarter. The Breakers had grabbed an 11-point lead on the back of a 10-0 run and the champs were feeling good, hooting and hollering as they huddled on the bench. Mika wouldn’t have it. This was a time to fire up. “HEY!” he yelled, halting the party with a single raised voice. There was still 4:40 left, he reminded them, plenty of time for Melbourne to make a run of their own. After the buzzer, an exhausted Vukona made his way towards the New Zealand bench to join the end of the hand-shake line. When he got there, Charles Jackson was goofing around; showing off with something of a victory dance. One sharp look of disapproval from Vukona put an end to that. ‘There’s more work to be done’, that look said, ‘show some respect’. Having snatched Game One against Melbourne on the road, the Breakers are now one win away from their fifth Grand Final appearance in six years. Don’t tell Mika, though – he doesn’t want to hear it. “It’s not over, we’ve got to go home – they’re a tough unit – it’s going to be another hard one coming up.” The legend of Mika set to grow another day.
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