Hungry Jack's NBL
Damian Martin on His Return, Perth’s Finals Preparation and How to Beat the Cairns Taipans
Written for nbl.com.au by Tom Hersz
Preparing for the NBL Finals is nothing new for Damian Martin.
With the Wildcats entering their 34th consecutive Finals campaign, Martin has made the post-season in each of his 11 seasons in the west.
However, coming off a foot injury that cost him seven games and kept him sidelined for six weeks, Martin is still playing catch up.
He’s played just two games since the injury for a grand total of 24 minutes and Martin will need to spend the upcoming FIBA break wisely if he’s going to be able to play without restriction when the Finals start.
The good news though is that Martin got through those two games with no issues.
“Yeah it’s good,” Martin told NBL Media at the Awards Night of how his foot is feeling.
“Obviously I’m still on minutes restrictions. The idea was to get a couple of games under my belt; now we’ve got a two-week break before Game 1 of the semi finals, so there’ll be no restrictions for that.
“I can’t wait to get out on the court in a finals setting. It’s a different monster and the best time of the year, so the foot’s good and there’ll be no excuses going in to try to match up against one of the best players in the league.”
Perth finished the NBL20 regular season in second place with a 19-9 record and will host the Cairns Taipans when the semi finals tipoff on February 28. It means he and Mitch Norton will have the job of trying to slow down Scott Machado – the Fans MVP and All-NBL First Teamer.
That is no small task. Norton and Martin will need to be at their best defensively, so for the Wildcats captain to get some court time in before the Finals was very important – not only physically, but also mentally. It allowed him to get any nerves or extra excitement about his return out of the way before the Finals start and he loved being back on court with his teammates.
“Yeah it was brilliant,” described Martin.
“To be honest I was like a kid on Christmas morning; just sheer excitement when my name was called and I went to the bench to sub in. I love getting out there and playing, and after six weeks on the sidelines sometimes you forget how much you love the game or take it for granted.
“It was a timely reminder [of] how much I enjoy it and being able to build some strength back, now it’s a matter of getting the conditioning back up to where it needs to be.”
And that will be a main focus for the 336-game NBL veteran.
“Yeah, in particular this next week coming up,” said Martin.
“Some of the guys will have it a little bit lighter on court, so that they’re fresh and ready to go at the back end of week two and going into the game.
“Me, it’s about probably playing a little bit of catch up from a conditioning point of view and then the second week I’ll take it a little bit easier, getting ready for the game.”
Another thing Martin will need to do is to build some rapport with his newest teammate in Miles Plumlee. Having played sparingly together, some extra practice time will give them a chance to figure out how they can help each other on both ends of the court.
Martin loves what Plumlee has brought to the team and recognises that they can still get a lot more out of him if they use him a little better. But Martin is thrilled with what he’s seen so far.
“As far as buy-in to the team, it’s been first class,” Martin explained of Plumlee.
“He’s an ultimate professional – a helluva guy. A lot of fun to be around, so the guys love calling him a teammate.
“And then on the court, things he can do – especially at the defensive end – we’re not used to having that at times. So it’s a matter of us adjusting to his strengths at both ends of the court and probably utilising him a little bit better.
“He’s one of the best guys for setting screens, pick and roll, playing above the ring and rebounding, but we can also roll it into him at times and expect him to make the right play. So, we’re still adjusting but I think his best is yet to come.”
The Wildcats ended the season strongly. They won their last three games and six of their final seven, so they’re in great form as they start their title defence.
So while having some time off to get into better shape, have some practice time together and ensuring everyone is 100 per cent healthy going into Game 1 of the semi finals is great, in some respects it would be better to just keep this thing rolling for the ‘Cats.
This FIBA window though means that they have to sit and wait for nearly two weeks between games. In some respects, it’s not ideal.
“You just want to play to be honest,” Martin admitted.
“If we could play Game 1 of the semi finals tomorrow, we would. This time of year you just want to get out on court and try and win that championship.
“So, for me, because I’m coming back from injury, I guess in theory it’s nice to be able to have two weeks under my belt. But in saying that, the guys are just champing at the bit to get out there and the coaches have been very specific in saying take a day or two away from the basketball court to freshen up mentally as well as anything, because sometimes you can play the game a little bit too early in your head and you can have some mental fatigue set in when there’s a two-week break.”
The Wildcats had Monday and Tuesday off to fly home from Melbourne and spend time with family before returning to practice on Wednesday.
Once they’re back into it, Martin’s leadership role ramps up too. As team captain, the five-time champion has to help Trevor Gleeson and the coaching staff to ensure everyone is focused on the task at hand.
However, with the bulk of their main rotation players – aside from Plumlee and Majok Majok – having been there when they won the title last season, it makes Martin’s role as captain and getting the team to prepare mentally, a lot easier.
“If you surround yourself with the right people, then everything’s made a lot easier and if you’ve got a collective goal, then it doesn’t matter what people’s individual motivators are, providing it doesn’t derail the team from its overall goal,” explained Martin.
“All along we said we wanted to win a championship. Step one was qualifying for Finals, step two was trying to get home court advantage and we’ve been fortunate enough to do those two things. But it’s all a waste of time if you don’t get through the Semi-Finals.
“Cairns have beaten us twice out of the three times we’ve played them this year, so we know that if we’re not at our best, they’re going to beat us on our home court and then we’ve got to try and snag one back up there. So it’s all about one; not getting ahead of ourselves and then two; doing all the boring stuff from a day-to-day basis that carries over to a performance when the big lights are on.”
Does Martin feel any extra pressure as the defending champs?
“No, I don’t think so,” he acknowledged.
“To be honest I think a lot of the pressure has been on some of the other teams with the rosters they’ve put together. With how tight the league was, every win was hard to come by and now that it’s only four teams left, it’s going to be even harder.
“I’m excited to get out there against Cairns. Obviously they’ve got some new personnel this year [as] opposed to last and it’s the first time they’re playing in a finals setting, but the way they play with that confidence, the belief in themselves and each other, I don’t think it matters at all that we’ve had more Finals experience; I think both teams will be ready to go.”
Martin’s role will most likely remain as a reserve as he’s been in the past two games and, ever the team-first guy, he’s perfectly comfortable with that.
“As you mentioned, we’ve been lucky enough to win six of the last seven games. If I was coach, I wouldn’t be tinkering with the line up.
“Mitch is playing great basketball; the way he’s shooting the ball, getting on the ring, playing defence and calling plays for the right guys at the right times – I see no reason why we should change the line-up going into Finals.
“I’m more than happy to play my role, albeit a slightly different one off the bench, but at the end of the day that doesn’t worry Mitch or me.”
The matchup with Cairns should be an exciting one. There is a lot of headline talent on both teams with Machado, Nick Kay and MVP Bryce Cotton all making the All-NBL First Team at the Andrew Gaze Awards Night on Sunday.
Cam Oliver was named to the All-NBL Second Team along with teammate DJ Newbill, who also left with a second trophy as the Defensive Player of the Year; an award Martin knows all too well.
The last time the two teams met, back in Round 11, the Wildcats won a close game in Cairns by four points; 88-84. Of course, the Taipans won at home in Round 8 and also went into RAC Arena back in Round 3 and embarrassed Perth 99-76.
That was the Taipans’ first win of the season and in many ways it got their season started. It was also the Wildcats’ largest loss of the season and the fact that it happened in Perth, should give Cairns a lot of confidence coming into this series.
Martin knows this series is not about the individual players though. While there will undoubtedly be some individual brilliance at times, the series will be won by the team that executes better – together.
“If you want to break it down to individuals, I think you’re wasting too much time,” Martin explained.
“Each team has their superstars. At the end of the day it’s the team that can execute under that pressure and win the possession game. So, being safe with the ball – on the flipside trying to force turnovers and then winning the rebound count. Control the tempo, win the possession game – it goes a long way to getting a W.”
Getting a W is something Martin knows a thing or two about, so you know that he – and his team – will be ready next Friday.