To set this up, we need to rewind to September at the NBL Blitz in Darwin. The New Zealand Breakers, the feel-good story, returning home after two seasons living in Australian hotels due to covid travel restrictions. They were also an unknown, with many predicting the team would again miss the postseason -- myself included.
I conducted an anonymous poll of coaches around the league, asking them to predict who would win the championship excluding their own club. Breakers head coach Mody Maor cut me off mid-sentence, informing me that this was not a championship team yet.
Six months later, they are three wins from the title.
"I'm proud of you for remembering Darwin, it seems like it was a lifetime ago," Maor says with a smile when reminded of the conversation.
The answer is not surprising, as Maor's personality mixes intensity with charm. After a short pause, he recalls his headspace at the time.
"We weren't a championship team yet. I think championship pedigree is something you need to prove. You need to prove this over the length of a season. You need to prove it through challenges, through competing against the best and I don't believe in championships on paper.
"I also didn't build this team with the idea of 'let's go win a championship', I built this team with the idea of being one of the best defences in the league so we could have a shot at the playoffs. Once you make the playoffs, anything is possible."
Integrating three new imports and major roster turnover, the Breakers would have been forgiven for making a slow start. Instead, they found themselves 7-3 at the 10-game mark with the league's best defence by a considerable margin.
"Six or seven games in," Maor responds when asked at what point he sensed the Breakers were a legitimate threat.
"It was already clear to me that the things we were doing on the defensive end were real. It was really clear early that this group of people was about all the right things. If we put in the right work we would see the results."
Maor is unapologetically intense during games and particularly in the practice gym. After losses, he is frustrated. After wins, he looks deeper for the cracks in the armour.
"We're very critical with each other even after wins. This is not a happy go lucky environment, it's not for everyone," he explains. "It's not free flowing, easy and fun. This is an environment that is extremely demanding, I don't know the schedule of every other team in the NBL and how they do things, but I would assume we're in the top percentile of how much work we put in, how hard practices are, how demanding our film sessions are. When I say those things after wins and losses, we go back to the work every time. It's always very, very critical."
Throughout the season, Maor has discussed openly the journey to finding balance between pushing the limits, driving standards and taking in the success. He's an emotional character who has evidently hit the right notes more often than not, but in a season that has brought so much joy back to New Zealand basketball, the stress of the job is not lost on the first-year head coach.
"It's difficult all the time. It's difficult and that's what I enjoy about it. It's a real challenge, it's one that manifests itself in a million different ways. From strategy to tactics to coaching to teaching to managing people to managing an organisation to managing your own self. The challenges are everywhere so it's always tough. This was a very challenging season in every aspect."
"Enjoying myself?" he asks.
"I feel fulfilled. It's a very meaningful pursuit for me. The results at the end were very enjoyable, it means the world to me to see the things we do and the things I believed in coming to fruition in winning games in a league as good as the NBL."
Sacrifice is a word that often gets used in sports, with Maor's Breakers no exception. Import guard Barry Brown Jr. may be the best example on this squad, with the explosive scorer's role flipping throughout the season from starter to reserve despite averaging over 20 points per night.
"When you see a successful basketball team, it means everybody is willing to give up a little piece of the pie. Everybody sacrifices. Sometimes it's minutes, sometimes it's shots, sometimes it's role, starting positions, every player on this team sacrifices," Maor explains.
"I'm happy that we were able to create an environment where everybody feels valued and all of their sacrifices come towards the common good. It's obviously a lot easier to sacrifice when you look over your shoulder and you see everybody doing the same. You're appreciated for the things you bring to the table, whether it's scoring 32 points in a close out game or doing the best you can do as a drop defender in practice to simulate Sydney's coverages. All of these things are extremely valued, and all of these things contribute to winning."
If the Breakers are to win the title, Brown will most likely piece together a monster series, with his ability to score in the halfcourt critical to a Breakers team that holds the fifth ranked offence on a per 100 possession basis.
"We envisioned Barry as one of our leading scorers, he's very capable in crating his own shot. It's a skill you need with the amount of switching defences you see today. The level of the competition in the NBL, you have to have a guy who can create his own."
"I've loved the Barry Brown experience, I'm very proud of the improvements he's made as a basketball player from the beginning of the season. If I need to describe his personality, I will use the word bubbly," Maor says with a smile.
There is a sense of pride that is apparent when Maor talks about this Breakers squad, who are now within touching distance of an NBL title just one season removed from finishing dead last with a 5-23 record.
After a two-week FIBA break delay, Maor has had plenty of time to think about the possibilities. Six months ago, he had a blueprint and within three weeks he could be a championship winning coach.
Rather than using the break to think about the possibilities ahead, at least on the outside, he remains typically cool, calm and collected.
"Nervous? Not really, I just get excited," he says.
"These weeks have been surprisingly easy. We're playing for the highest stakes. It's a dream to be here. It really is all gravy now. The season has been good, we're happy about what we've achieved. I feel good and comfortable and confident in my team. We're going against the best team in the league with a group of people that you really want to go to battle with. There isn't a better scenario for a coach.
"Excited? Very much. Optimistic? Very much. Enthusiastic? Very much. It's been an incredible two weeks."