R20 Preview: Perth Wildcats vs Adelaide 36ers

When: 9.30pm (AEST), Thursday 14 April, 2022

RAC Arena, Perth

ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sports NZ

Who won last time?
Perth 92 (Cotton 27, Blanchfield 22, Law 22) d Adelaide 73 (Johnson 19, Dufelmeier, Dech 10, Hannahs 10) – Round 14, Adelaide Entertainment Centre

Perth’s ‘big three’ rolled into the City of Churches and produced a divine offensive performance, Bryce Cotton, Vic Law and Todd Blanchfield combining for 71 points at 56 per cent from the field and 12/21 from the arc. While the ‘Wildcast’ didn’t produce much offensively, they led a defensive shutdown that kept Adelaide to 73 points at 30 per cent.

What happened last start?

It was a more even performance in last week’s win over New Zealand, seven 'Cats scoring seven points or more and Law the top scorer with 18. The offence was measured – 48 per cent from the field, 8/21 from deep, 17/19 from the stripe and committing just 11 turnovers – but while the defensive pressure was good, the interior continues to pose a problem.

Adelaide’s problem continues to be consistency, be that defensive execution, decision making or the ability to knock down shots. In two Round 19 losses to finish off their home season, the 36ers gave up 48 per cent shooting while knocking in just 39 per cent of their own. One pleasing return was 40 assists across the two games and only 25 cough-ups.

Who’s in form?

Luke Travers – LT has been entrusted with more minutes, and playmaking duties with Mitch Norton and Michael Frazier out, playing 27 per night the past five games and producing 11.8 points at 64 per cent inside and 35 per cent outside, while adding 6.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists. While the guards are back on deck, expect Travers to still handle plenty of the rock.

Kai Sotto – The Filipino athlete is another youngster getting more burn late in the season, and he burned Brisbane with a career-high 21 points at 87 per cent in less than 18 minutes.
He’s become arguably the NBL’s best alley-oop target, but CJ Bruton would love to see him increase his totals of 15 defensive boards and two blocks from his past six games combined.

Who needs to be?

Mitch Norton – It’s nice to be missed, and Perth sure weren’t the same team without their spiritual leader, who averaged 13.7 points and 4.3 assists in seven games before his injury, shooting 57 per cent inside and 44 per cent outside. The Cats can win the title with Norton in top form, but can he get there in time for next week’s crunch clash with the Hawks? 

Daniel Johnson – DJ is in form – 19.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 o-boards in his past five games in an incredible display of all-around basketball from the Sixers’ centre – and Adelaide need him to keep producing to stay competitive. If anything, they need to go to him in pick-and-pop and mid-post action more during their long scoring droughts.

Who’s statting up?

 - In the 36ers’s past four games, they’ve averaged 14.3 points in their lowest-scoring quarters (57 points per 40 minutes) compared to 26.8 in their high-scoring periods (107 points per 40 minutes)

 - In Adelaide’s seven wins they’ve averaged 88.7 points, while in 17 losses they’ve managed just 76.9ppg

 - Before Norton’s injury Perth were averaging 90.8 points at 45 per cent across the season. In four games with their point guard out they managed just 81.8ppg at 40 per cent

 - When Bryce Cotton deals five assists or more the Wildcats are 26-7 over the past two seasons, compared to 12-11 when he doesn’t. In Norton’s four-game absence he averaged 3.5, compared to 4.8 over the rest of NBL22

Who’s matching up?

Bryce Cotton v Mitch McCarron – While Jaylen Adams has added spice to the discussion, Bryce Cotton continues to be the Rock of Gibraltar when it comes to NBL superstars. In his first 12 games of NBL22 he averaged 23.6ppg at 37 per cent from deep and 4.5apg, while over the next 12 he managed 22.5ppg at 37 per cent from deep and 4.8apg.

That high-level of consistency is almost unfathomable, especially with the defensive attention he receives. Given Sunday Dech is struggling, and Tad Dufelmeier is taking more of the ball-handling responsibilities, it might be time for McCarron to take the job on the MVP, who shook his 36ers’ hoodoo to rack up 27 points on 6/10 from long range in Round 14.

Who’s talking the talk?

There might be some handshakes and introductions in the Perth locker room before Thursday’s clash with the 36ers, given this will be remarkably just the third time they’ve had their full roster all season.

Key defensive pieces Matt Hodgson, Mitch Norton and Michael Frazier have missed 29 games between them, but with the latter duo finally back on deck the Wildcats have four games to build for the post-season.

“This season we've been allergic to having our full roster,” Hodgson laughed.

“To finally get that and get those guys back in rhythm heading into the playoffs, and making a push in the playoffs, that’s going to be instrumental for us.

“Those are two quality players and we need them.”

After poor defensive displays against Sydney and Tasmania, the 'Cats limited Melbourne to 84 points at 43 per cent, then produced an up-and-down display against the Breakers.

Worryingly, the leaked 65 per cent shooting from two-point range, with few answers to Yanni Wetzell on the roll-out or Ousmane Dieng on penetration.

However, they kept the Kiwis to 80 points at 25 per cent from range, forced 17 turnovers and grabbed 82 per cent of available d-boards to win possession points 30-16, and coach Scott Morrison was looking at the glass as half-full.

“All the guys are buying in and trying to trust each other defensively and really lock in on what their roles are defensively,” he said.

“They are encouraging each other from the bench to really keep playing hard and take it one possession at a time, those are all the key things for us defensively.

“We had a few little lapses where we let them get loose, but I thought it was one of our better defensive efforts in the last few weeks.”

Hodgson agreed, but knows they're not at playoff level just yet.

“We were building towards this,” he said.

“I think we should have got this done a long time ago but the fact that we got it, and we did the way we wanted to, which is on the defensive end, is really encouraging.

“Still a lot of room to grow for us, a lot of things we can do better, but it’s good to be moving in the right direction.”

Someone else who’s moving in the right direction is Kai Sotto, who scored 29 points on 10/12 shooting in 34 minutes last round, with 22 of those coming at the cup or the free-throw line as he’s dominated the interior and fed of Mitch McCarron’s sweet passing.

“We spoke after the (Round 18) Brisbane game … I told the big fella this is what I need from you,” coach Bruton said.

“The games we have left, this is how I see you making an impact, regardless of how our group is going, this is what I need from you and if you give me this here I know we’ll be better.

“It just so happened the next day at practice, I wasn’t there but I heard rave reviews about everything we spoke about he was doing, and clearly what we've seen since the Brisbane game.”

Where Sotto had floated from the basket earlier in the year, he’s learned to use his 218cm length to advantage. Where he was a defensive liability, he’s started to show enough effort to earn trust and minutes from CJ.

“Can Kai get out there and move (his feet)? He can,” Bruton said.

“I saw 15 minutes a game for him, he’s outdoing that at this point and giving us what we need. From his standpoint, like every player you want more opportunities, but I think he’s right on par for where I see him getting to, not only now but for the future.”

The 19-year-old sensation gives credit to Cam Bairstow and Daniel Johnson for taking him to the school of hard knocks.

“They really help me in practices, they challenge me,” Sotto said.

“Playing against those guys in practice, DJ, Bairstow, some days I look very bad because they're just challenging me.”

The challenge for Perth is to get better. After dropping three-straight home dates to offset their outstanding 9-5 road run, coach Morrison is aware the win over NZ didn’t possess all the cures for their ails.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of improvement to make still if we want to make a run at this post-season, but we needed to get a win and it was a hard-fought battle,” he said.

“I would say the monkey’s still on the back, but maybe he’s hanging by one arm?”


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