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R16 Preview: Cairns v New Zealand

Who: Cairns Taipans v New Zealand When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Saturday 23 January Where: Cairns Convention Centre Watch: Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ; NBL Live App Last time they met: Cairns 73 (Craig 21, Bruce 17, Worthington 16) d New Zealand 66 (Webster 24, Charles Jackson 16), Round 13, Cairns Convention Centre THE MATCH-UP Mark Worthington v Mika Vukona – If these teams have their pride intact this game will be dour fight until the end, and no players in the NBL enjoy that sort of contest more than Worthington and Vukona, who have been NBL rivals, championship teammates and long-time FIBA adversaries. Both players’ ability to pass out of the post will also be important if it’s a low-scoring grind. THE STATS Over the past two seasons, Cairns are 4-0 when the keep the Breakers to 77 points or less and 0-4 when they don’t. Over the past five games Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie have shot a combined 34 per cent from the field and 25 per cent from the arc. Prior to that they were hitting 45 and 39 per cent. THE STORY Rewind just five short weeks and the New Zealand Breakers were flying high, as per usual, with a 10-5 record and series win over Perth placing them as favourites for the minor premiership. Of their losses, three came in the opening two rounds when Corey Webster was in the USA and Tom Abercrombie, Mika Vukona and Alex Pledger all missed games due to injury. Another defeat resulted from an officiating decision the NBL later deemed incorrect. Fast forward back to the present and something has gone horribly awry, the defending champions losing six out of seven games, with three of those by double-figure margins. The Breakers built the NBL’s greatest ever dynasty through a combination of elite talent, air-tight chemistry and relentless effort. The latter two appear to have disappeared, leaving the talent unable to shine and coach Dean Vickerman an angry man at half-time of his team’s capitulation to the Crocs on Thursday. “I’m disappointed with how soft we’re playing right now,” he said. “We’re getting smashed on the boards, their intent to get to the rim gets them 16 free throws, we’ve just got to change our whole mentality about how we’re playing.” Apart from an occasional highlight the second half was worse, and now New Zealand’s title defence is on the slimmest knife edge, while Cairns must win their final six games and hope other results go their way to reach the post-season. After watching the Breakers’ finger-pointing in Townsville the Taipans would be confident of a win this Saturday, but they have their own serious breakdowns to fix from last round’s 30-point defeat in Melbourne. “We weren’t on the money, we weren’t in the right spots at the right time so they're going to punish us and they did,” captain Cam Gliddon said. “There was a lot of miscommunication … there wasn’t much communication out there and when there was it was usually wrong.” While coach Aaron Fearne was frustrated post-game, he pointed out his team had recently claimed some big scalps, including the Breakers, and the test for his team was whether they could step up a level and repeat the dose. “The last five or six games we’d been playing really hard and been very disruptive defensively, and played some really good teams at home and made them look pretty ordinary,” he said. “They didn’t have Abercrombie (last time), so obviously he’ll be a different beast to deal with. I think at this stage of the season you find out the true character of your team and the true character of the individuals.” THE WRAP New Zealand come into this game ice cold, missing 29 of their final 41 field-goal attempts against Townsville and having not topped 81 points in regulation since 27 December. The Taipans have averaged just 70.3 points in their past seven games with Markel Starks injured or limited, but in the Far North they like it that way, 15-3 at home the past two seasons when the total score is below 160 points. Cairns’ brittle shooting could allow New Zealand’s bigs to defend the paint and Cedric Jackson to gamble, so the ability of Alex Loughton, Cam Tragardh, Worthington and Gliddon to hit the jumper and open up driving lanes for Starks and Torrey Craig will be important. New Zealand’s assist numbers have dropped 21 per cent in their losing streak, Abercrombie and Webster not working as hard to get open, the screens not packing the same heat and Cedric less willing to give up the ball. Unless they are back on the same page the Breakers’ miserable 2016 will continue.
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