Basketball: Emotional head coach Mody Maor savours NZ Breakers' playoffs return after two years of sacrifice

Head coach Mody Maor has been a level-headed constant - at least, off the court - at the NZ Breakers helm throughout their resurgent 2022/23 Australian NBL campaign.

But Saturday's 80-74 win over Melbourne United to clinch their first playoffs berth in four years induced a rare display of emotion from the Israeli, as he reflected on the hardships his side had overcome through the last couple of pandemic-plagued seasons.

Forced to relocate across the ditch, the team's morale was pushed to the limit over the past two years, but after just five wins on their way to the wooden spoon in their last campaign, reaching 16 and punching their ticket back to the post-season feels that much sweeter.

Backstage after their momentous victory, Maor had to take a moment for composure, as he assessed his team's milestone.

"Sixteen wins has been up on my board for a very long time," said Maor after the game. "It's the No. 1 goal, and I'm happy we accomplished it.

"You've kept asking me for a big part of the season, am I having fun, so I told myself, when we get to 16, I'll have fun for a little bit. 

"I'll enjoy it and tomorrow I'll go back to regular and we're on to the next one."

Tom Abercrombie drives to the hoop against Melbourne United.
Tom Abercrombie drives to the hoop against Melbourne United. Photo credit: Getty Images

The evening had an extra tinge of sentimentality to it, taking place during a state of emergency, due to unprecedented rain across Auckland over the previous 36 hours.

There was doubt whether the game would even proceed, with the streets surrounding Spark Arena still underwater early Saturday morning.

Melbourne United coach Dean Vickerman recounted the chaos that greeted his side at Auckland Airport on Friday. They took almost three hours to clear customs and another two to reach their downtown destination.

"There were a lot of cars with lights on just stuck in water and we were trying to power through," recalled the former Breakers head coach. "It was some of the craziest rain I've ever seen."

Breakers faithful defied the inclement weather - and Government advice - to flock to the stadium for their team's pivotal contest, with over 6500 fans packing in to help lift the Breakers to the finish line.

"On a day like today, so complicated, it makes basketball feel small for a minute," said Maor. "My main goal was to make the playoffs, and the way to achieve it for me was to play in a way that would gain the trust of the community, and that they would see something in how we do things and it would resonate with the way Kiwis do things.

"If 6500 people come to the game today in these circumstances, it means all those people see something in the Breakers that resonates with them. 

"I couldn't be happier or prouder."

That groundswell of support was timely for the Breakers, who overcame a slow start to ride their trademark defence - and some critical intervention off the bench by big man Rob Loe (15 points, 6 rebounds) - to snap a nine-game losing streak against the Victorian side.

Of course, the job is far from done for the Breakers. With just two regular season games remaining, they're still within reach of the all-important second spot, which is rewarded with automatic qualification for the semi-finals.

That will depend on the fortunes of the currently second-placed Cairns Taipans. The Breakers need the Queenslanders to lose at least one of their final two games to give them a chance to catch them at 17 wins, where their tiebreaker will ensure they leapfrog them on the ladder.

Firstly, they'll need to take care of business against the lowly Illawarra Hawks at Sydney on Thursday, then the Bullets at Brisbane - whom they beat by 28 points last week - in their final regular season game on Saturday.