Basketball: NZ Breakers control ANBL playoff destiny after Cairns Taipans lose to Adelaide 36ers

NZ Breakers can now dictate their Australian NBL playoff fate, after watching rivals Cairns Taipans drop their final home game of the regular season to Adelaide 36ers.

The four-time league champions have clinched a spot in the six-team post-season for the first time in five years, after two campaigns exiled across the Tasman during the COVID-19 pandemic, but still have a shot at a second-place finish that would put them straight into the semi-finals with home advantage.

They sit half a game behind the Taipans for that coveted position, with two games left, and Cairns' 99-96 defeat in their penultimate game opens the door to the Breakers, if they can win both those encounters on the road against bottom-placed Illawarra Hawks and second-bottom Brisbane Bullets.

Breakers celebrate their ANBL playoffs spot after beating Melbourne United
Breakers celebrate their ANBL playoffs spot after beating Melbourne United. Photo credit: Getty Images

Cairns have an away fixture remaining against Perth Wildcats - one of the most daunting roadtrips in the league - and any kind of tie and countback would favour the Breakers, with their superior points differential.

"We've worked very hard to be in this situation," said coach Mody Maor. "This is a goal we set ourselves on the first day of pre-season.

"It's a goal, as a coaching staff, we set ourselves on the first day we assembled and started building this team. As an athlete, this is what you want - your destiny in your own hands. 

"It's on us to go out there and perform, and we welcome the challenge."

The resurgence has been particularly sweet for captain Tom Abercrombie, who has had to endure hardship on and off the court during the COVID years, struggling to keep his body fit enough to even play during much of that time.

He missed most of last season with a mystery side strain and then the opening rounds of this campaign, after being poked in the eye during a pre-season game.

"Coming into this season, a big personal goal for me was to find that joy and excitement in the game again, after the last couple of years," said Abercrombie, 35, the last survivor of a Breakers dynasty that won three straight titles and four in five years between 2011-15.

"I can safely say I've found that again. I've absolutely loved playing with these guys and playing the way we play.

"I haven't tried to sugarcoat it, I hated the last two years in Australia. I hated basketball, I hated life a lot of times, so it's been fantastic to be home and rediscover that joy for everything."

Tom Abercrombie in action against Melbourne United
Tom Abercrombie in action against Melbourne United. Photo credit: Getty Images

Maor has also been part of those struggles, as assistant coach under Dan Shamir, but has reshaped the team culture to embrace its Kiwi origins, which has also struck a chord with their homegrown fanbase.

"This place is special, it has a special history," he said. "It represents something special in basketball on this side of the world and in basketball period.

"To have any kind of responsibility in maintaining or rebuilding or progressing this legacy and the meaning this place has, that's a responsibility I welcome. So far, we've been able to do right with that legacy and I hope that any endeavour we have in the future will do the same."

With the current heavy rain warning putting a question mark over travel out of Auckland, the Breakers will travel to Sydney, via Queenstown and Christchurch, for their Thursday meeting with Illawarra, before facing Brisbane on Sunday.