TIME to find out who is really wearing the trousers in the NBL.
Tied atop the competition ladder with 14-5 records, the Perth Wildcats and NZ Breakers have legitimate claims to top dog status as the run-in to the playoffs begins.
The Wildcats head into what shapes as the most pivotal showdown of the regular season tonight on the North Shore riding an impressive six-match win streak. Last week they massacred the league's third-placed club, Townsville, by 32 points. The Breakers have also tasted Perth's power this season, copping an 86-62 drubbing when the teams met in Perth in round 12.
The Breakers, however, will regard that performance as an aberration. The defending champions are also riding a handy win streak of four matches. They have been playing in front of packed houses and largely annihilating all visitors to Auckland, dropping just the one game at home to bogey club Wollongong this season. They also boast the bragging rights from the last meeting that really mattered between the league's fiercest rivals - the deciding match in April's 2010-11 semifinals series.
The stage, then, is well and truly set. Just don't try telling that to Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis, who publicly at least has been playing down the importance of the match, and the level of the antipathy between the sides.
"It's not like at the end of the game we are out in the carpark trying to punch each other," Lemanis said. "There is a mutual respect from both groups, but in the games everyone wants to win and is going to do whatever it takes."
Lemanis also cautioned against reading too much into the result.
"To put too much on any one game is silly. I mean, what are you going to do, try harder? Both teams are going to want to win anyway. You do what you do and the season moves on."
Certainly, but only one team will move on in the box seat to earn crucial home advantage for a likely finals rematch, a fact acknowledged by Wildcats captain Brad Robbins.
"It's a huge game because we want the home court advantage (in the play-offs)," Robbins told the West Australian.
"Last year, not having that advantage definitely bit us on the backside."
The absence of injured captain Shawn Redhage, the abrasive former Breaker who seems to delight in twisting the knife into his old club, was another major factor in that semifinal series. It remains to be seen how the teams match up now that Redhage is back in action. Clashes between these two are combustible enough. Redhage tends to be the bucket of petrol tossed on the flames. The task of limiting his impact falls primarily to Mika Vukona, with the battle between two of the league's toughest nuts always key to the result.
"That is the challenge that I am looking forward to," Vukona said. "He's physical and he can shoot it. He does everything that you'd expect from a captain. But they have got a lot of weapons in that team. If I can do my part and hold Shawn from having a good game then I'd be happy. But you've also got to look at their guards - if [Kevin] Lisch and [Damien] Martin get hot then Redhage will start getting his looks."
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