You win some and you lose some. Tom Abercrombie knows this as well as anyone in the Australian NBL after recently racking up his 350th game for the New Zealand Breakers.
On Sunday night in Perth Abercrombie most definitely won one as he made the decisive play to seal a memorable 83-78 victory over the champion Wildcats and secure a much-needed second win on the bounce for the Breakers.
As much as Sunday’s victory was about the shooting of import Levi Randolph (23 off the bench at a stellar 11-of-16 clip) and rebounding of giant American Colton Iverson (another man-sized haul of 17 to go with 11 points), it was also about the defence of Abercrombie who balanced that with an efficient 14 points.
The 32-year-old Abercrombie is the Breakers’ – and quite possible the league’s – best defender, and inevitably draws the assignment on the opposition’s premier player. Last Tuesday in Launceston he harried the Wildcats’ league MVP Bryce Cotton into a 9-of-22 shooting night, but still came off second best as Cotton nailed a miraculous buzzer-beater to force overtime where Perth would eventually prevail 85-79.
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Cotton finished with 32 points that night in Tasmania, after having just one at the end of the first quarter and five at halftime. Abercrombie did a job – but it still wasn’t enough as his team sunk to its 14th defeat of the season.
Fast forward a few days and the Breakers have flipped the narrative. On Thursday night they thumped the Brisbane Bullets by 20 at their temporary Tasmania home – with Abercrombie pouring in 16 efficient points and keeping the league’s second best scorer, Nathan Sobey, 7 points below his season average – and then followed that up with Sunday’s statement victory in front of over 11,000 fans in Perth.
At 7-14 there is a way to go yet, but the Breakers still have a pulse, with the warm prospect of extending that win streak to three when they host the struggling Cairns Taipans (6-18), minus star import Cam Oliver, on Friday night in Launceston.
Sunday night’s victory in Perth showed the value of perseverance for Abercrombie and his men. The Kiwis had trailed by 13 midway through the third period, but roared back behind Randolph’s run of mid-rangers and some stout defence to lead by 5 inside the final minute.
When Perth’s Todd Blanchfield missed a 3-pointer with 24 seconds remaining it looked a done deal, only for Randolph, who made 11 of 16 shots, to turn the ball over 7 seconds later and Abercrombie to compound the error by fouling Mitch Norton on the break.
Because it was ruled unsportsmanlike, the Cats got the ball back after Norton’s two free-throws (both successful) and trailed by just 3, with the chance to send another game into overtime. Deja-vu!
But Abercrombie is clearly a learner. On the inbounds pass to the Wildcats star, the Breakers skipper read the play beautifully, tipped the ball clear and raced downcourt to convert a pressure layup for the victory.
For a man who has been doing it tough this NBL season, desperately missing his family, and a little miffed he is not heading home until mid-May, it was a deserved reward.
Abercrombie has been relatively quiet offensively this campaign (10ppg at a 42 percent clip overall and just 31 from deep) but has remained the standard-setter on defence. His effort there is unwavering.
“We played solid, and defended,” reflected coach Dan Shamir. “Five days ago we kept Perth, who are the most efficient team in the NBL, to 37 percent from the floor. Both games were great. This one was also a huge one (Perth shot 44 percent overall; the Breakers 50) … they missed a few shots, we made a few big plays.”
Asked about Abercrombie’s big stop at the finish, Shamir added: “Five days ago it was a brutal loss. We wanted to miss a free-throw that probably would have given us the win and accidentally made it. That’s how close it can get. It’s a game of mistakes.
“We turned the ball over the play before that and he (Abercrombie) got a great steal. Great games, close games, are decided over very small things. These are big plays and luckily tonight we had the last one.”
Then there was Iverson’s footwear. At the end of March the big centre hauled in a then club-best 20 rebounds in an overtime victory over the Bullets wearing practice shoes because he hadn’t figured on playing.
Last game out Iverson had just 3 boards, so switched his lucky pair back in for Perth, and the result was that big double-double, including 7 swipes off the offensive glass. “I might keep switching back and forth,” said the big man from South Dakota afterwards.
Randolph, too, has found his groove with 43 points over the last two outings. He looks a keeper, with Shamir noting the multi-year deal he has been signed to.
“Levi is a major difference-maker for us,” said the coach. “He had a great game, made his mid-range shots, made some amazing passes … he is a solid player across the board. He defends, gets rebounds, makes shots, and we needed it so much.”