R11 Preview: Perth Wildcats vs Illawarra Hawks

When: 9.30pm (AEDT), Friday 26 March

RAC Arena, Perth

ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand; Twitch

The last time
Perth 87 (Cotton 18, Blanchfield 16, Mooney 14, Wagstaff 14) d Illawarra 70 (Harvey 17), Round 8, John Cain Arena, Melbourne

You best believe this was a paddling. Despite Perth playing their third game in five days they simply obliterated the Hawks from tip-off, leading by 11 at quarter-time, 22 at intermission and 28 at the final break before Illawarra added some respectability to the scoreboard with the benches on the floor. Quite simply, the Wildcats executed and hit, while the Hawks turned it over or missed as only Tyler Harvey reached double figures.

The now
Illawarra rebounded from that performance by holding both Sydney and United to 69 points in back-to-back wins as end-of-NBL Cup fatigue ate away at offences around the league, but in Round 10 it was their turn to churn, managing just 65 points at 31 per cent from the field as Melbourne’s physicality proved too much, only two Hawks shooting above 37 per cent.

What fatigue? Perth have won five on the bounce, and their past three have delivered 94ppg to make a mockery of the scoring slump after the high-octane NBL Cup. In reality, the Wildcats get a steady stream of points from winning the possession game on a regular basis, while Illawarra’s best comes when their transition defence is set, usually after free throws.

The stats

 - In losses, the Hawks average 13.1 free-throw attempts and 15.4 o-boards, while in wins those numbers reverse to 19.9 foul shots and 9.7 offensive rebounds

 - The Wildcats have taken 44 more free throws than their opponents during their five-game winning streak

 - In that streak, Perth have committed 24 less turnovers than their oppo and are +48 on points from turnovers

 - Illawarra are +66 on bench points in wins (7.3 per game) compared to +2 on bench points in defeat (0.3 per game)

The key men

Emmett Naar – When the Hawks started hot, Naar had 12 dimes in the opening five games as he led the bench unit with aplomb, making opponents pay if they focused too much on Tyler Harvey or Justinian Jessup. In the past four games he’s had just 3 assists, and Illawarra has averaged 75.3ppg with just 34 assists to 39 turnovers in the three Ls in that stretch.

Last time against Perth, however, Naar didn’t cough up the ball once in 15 minutes, while his teammates had 18 miscues. Last season he had 11 dimes to 2 turnovers against the Cats, and with Perth forcing 13.4 mistakes in their five-game winning streak and capitalising clinically in transition, Naar shapes as a key to forcing the champs into half-court O.

Bryce Cotton – Bryce isn’t playing nice, of course, knocking in 33.7ppg the past two rounds, while dishing 6apg and committing just 3 turnovers across the three games. In case he needed more motivation, Illawarra are the last remaining team he hasn’t scored 20 against this season, having gone 5-of-13 from the field and 2-of-7 from deep in the Round 8 demolition.

That night it was Justin Simon who had the job on the MVP, limiting him with length and the aggressive approach of his teammates, who tried to make other Wildcats beat them, albeit unsuccessfully. Where Simon struggled was to exploit Cotton at the other end on cross-matches, shooting 3-of-12 and now having gone four games without reaching double figures.

The quotes

The points just aren't piling up for Illawarra, who looked like they were figuratively pulling teeth at the offensive end in Melbourne last round.

“We played as good a team as there is in this on their home court and we've been on the road for the whole time, bar New Zealand, we go home for a couple of days and come back and we've got to play them again,” coach Brian Goorjian said.

“It's a difficult ask. How we play when we play well is difficult. Getting the ball from side to side, cut, move, move the ball, then finish the clock strong with a good play, is difficult.”

Melbourne Tigers legend Linsday Gaze famously used the phrase “operation successful, patient died” when his team was getting the shots they wanted but not making them, however for Goorjian it’s more a case of operation aborted for his Hawks.

“Offensively we just looked fatigue. The cuts were slow, we took quick shots because the process was too difficult and then not having Cam (Bairstow) here and then getting Ogilvy and Froling with two fouls in the first quarter made me go pretty deep on the bench,” he said.

“I knew they were going to play physical and get into us, I thought the sign of energy and toughness tonight was being ball strong and through process.

“If you looked at that, Tyler’s shooting percentage, Deng Deng’s shooting percentage, Adel’s shooting percentage, Justinian’s shooting percentage, they were all shots that were contested and a lot of them were early.

“I thought on the defensive end we got back, we buckled down and we held our own, but on the offensive end that was the key to the loss tonight, just bad shots.”

If there is any good news ahead of a trip across the Nullarbor, it’s that Melbourne’s D is a pretty good dress rehearsal for the physicality the Cats will bring.

“We’re off to Perth for the next one, it’s brutal, it’s really going to test us,” Goorjian said.

“Tonight we couldn’t go where we needed to go physically through the process to get the shots we needed to get against a team like this.”

No team is better at playing against a defence like that than Perth.

In recent years, the Wildcats flourished as the whistle cracked down on off-the-ball physicality, but with grabbing and holding being allowed far more this season, they are still able to execute their counters and get good looks across the board, from Bryce Cotton down.

They proved that once again last round against Adelaide, who targeted Cotton but it made little difference. If the Hawks repeat their approach from the teams’ Round 8 meeting, last Monday will have been a good dress rehearsal for the Wildcats too.

“At the start of the season, there were a couple of guys who hadn’t played with Bryce before and they get to be spectators,” coach Trevor Gleeson said.

“It’s the moving pieces, they came out and started trapping him so we've got to put in our counters, we've got to be in our rebounding positions, we've got to be in our defensive transition, it’s just getting use to those positions out on the court.

“He was making some shots and we were ok, but then later in the second half I thought we dried up from the three-point line, I think we only hit two threes in the second half, but we still found different ways to score from crashing the glass, because we were in the right positions when they were rotating on Bryce.”

It all adds up to an unenviable task for the Hawks in a venue they rarely conquer, who have been almost exclusively road warriors this season, but at 9-7 approaching the half-way mark there is plenty of room for optimism.

“When we’ve been knocked down in the past we've bounced back and shown what we’re made of in the next game,” centre AJ Ogilvy said.

“So I don’t think I’ll have to drag guys with me, we’re all very proud of wearing the Illawarra Hawks jersey and the system we play, and we know we didn’t stand up to that tonight, so I think the guys will be rip-raring and ready to go come Friday in Perth.”


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