Both sides agree the NBL final series decider will be a battle of inches after the New Zealand Breakers held off the Perth Wildcats 72-68 in a defensive slugfest in Auckland.
The defending champions – aiming to win a fifth title in six years – held their nerve in a tense conclusion to game two on Friday night after leading by up to 11 points early in the second half.
The Wildcats, who won game one 82-76 in Perth on Wednesday, will return to their home court on Sunday for the third and final game.
Veteran Wildcats captain Damian Martin expressed frustration his team couldn’t clinch a seventh title inside two games after giving themselves a clear chance to do so in the closing minutes.
“This is everything you want in a grand final but we would have loved to finish it tonight,” Martin said.
“But we’ll go home now and it’s about whoever can stick with their game plan better. It’s whoever’s more disciplined and wants it more.”
A rugged, foul-heavy affair was never in safekeeping for the Breakers, who raced nine points clear but found it increasingly difficult to counter Perth’s zone defence.
The hosts were forced to shoot from outside, sinking five of 22 three-point attempts, with point guard Cedric Jackson (1/10) off target.
However, Jackson was the game’s most-influential figure, the American scoring 13 points and recording game-high figures for rebounds (nine), assists (eight) and steals (two).
Turnovers and poor free-throw shooting, which have haunted the Breakers all season, again crippled their attack.
Their defence was enormous, dominating the rebound count and reducing the Wildcats to 35 per cent shooting success from the field.
Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson was a furious figure through most of the game, directing his ire at match officials as his team’s foul count grew.
Courtside microphones captured his frustration early in the second half.
“They’re getting the whole game called their way. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
Despite their outside shooting woes, it was a three-pointer to off-colour guard Corey Webster with 18 seconds remaining which pushed the Breakers four points clear.
Webster shot just 2-of-13 from the field, with the home side’s scoring load taken up by Jackson, Thomas Abercrombie (12) and 11 each to Alex Pledger and Tai Wesley.
Breakers captain Mika Vukona says his team can be considerably better in game three, but they only have two days to figure out how.
“We’ve just got to be more aggressive against the zone. We’ve got to move the ball more, it got a little bit stagnant and Perth were able to capitalise,” he said.
“The boys put out really good D tonight – that’s what got us across the line.”
Perth were unable to establish the same inside presence as game one.
Jermaine Beal produced a game-high 20 points but was guilty of a crucial turnover leading to Webster’s match-winning three.
Bench forward Jesse Wagstaff had 13 points but the other key Wildcats failed to match their output from Wednesday.