Hungry Jack's NBL
R20 Preview: Perth Wildcats vs Cairns Taipans
When: 8pm (AEST), Saturday 16 April 2022
Where: RAC Arena, Perth
Broadcast: ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sport NZ
Who won last time?
Perth 84 (Cotton 29, Law 17, Travers 10) d Cairns 78 (Deng 27, Kuol 13, Zimmerman 12) - Round 5, Cairns Convention Centre
It was the annual New Year's Eve clash in Cairns for the Taipans and despite the absence of Scott Machado, Tahjere McCall and Mirko Djeric, the Snakes weren’t going to let down their loyal Orange Army. As a result, Cairns made a remarkable start against the league-leaders scoring the game's opening 13 points and leading by as much as 18, and still 25-11 by quarter-time.
However, from the point Cairns did lead 23-5, Perth outscored them 89 points to 55 the rest of the way to end up winning 84-78. Bryce Cotton wouldn’t let the Wildcats lose heading into 2022 though. After a scoreless first term, he exploded for 19 in the second on the way to 29 for the game to go with six assists.
Vic Law had his moments too with 17 points and six rebounds while Luke Travers added 10 points, five boards, four steals and three blocks, and Michael Frazier nine points, five rebounds, four steals and three assists on a night where Matt Hodgson and Mitch Norton returned.
Majok Deng continued his run of career-best form for the Taipans setting another benchmark with 27 points, seven rebounds, three steals and three blocks on 11/18 shooting. Bul Kuol not only ran the point as a rookie but guarded Cotton a lot of the night for Cairns and finished with 13 points, six rebounds and four assists with Stephen Zimmerman contributing 12 points and eight boards, and Keanu Pinder eight points and six rebounds.
What happened last start?
Both teams came away from their last games so disappointing feeling they needed to come out in their next appearance and put some respect back in their jerseys, so that alone sets the tone for a fascinating match up on Saturday night.
While the Wildcats and Taipans are at opposing ends of the spectrum in terms of what they are playing for with Perth still trying to lock away a 36th consecutive finals appearance and Cairns is playing for pride, motivation after disappointing performances on their respective home floors will be strong for both outfits.
The Wildcats have now lost four of their past five matches all at RAC Arena and Thursday night's loss to the Adelaide 36ers might have been the most disappointing of them all. The 'Cats were virtually outplayed the whole evening in The Jungle on the way to the 82-70 defeat.
There was precious few positives for the 'Cats to take. On their home floor, they were out rebounded, shot just 39 per cent from the field and went 6/22 from beyond the arc, had 14 turnovers and were outworked, outhustled and outplayed by a team out of playoff contention.
Bryce Cotton was hounded by Sunday Dech into just seven points and 3/16 but the problems ran deeper than his quiet night. However, the Wildcats did at least welcome back Mitch Norton and Michael Frazier, and Matt Hodgson stood up for 16 points and six rebounds in 25 minutes.
Then there is the Taipans. By halfway through the third quarter last Friday night, they were in their best form of the season having won the previous three matches and then leading the Tasmania JackJumpers in Hobart.
However, their general Scott Machado went injured during that third quarter and they were outplayed the rest of the way to lose by seven points and then they perhaps produced their most disappointing performance of the season back at home on Sunday to lose to Melbourne United 92-63.
Coach Adam Forde couldn’t hide his frustration and disappointment in the performance post-match. It was a rough night for the Snakes shooting just 32 per cent and going 5/21 from downtown to go with 16 turnovers.
More disappointing for Forde was that they just didn’t see to show the fight required so that's something that he will be looking to significantly change on Saturday night as they look to put another significant dent in the Wildcats' finals push even without Scott Machado, Stephen Zimmerman and Mirko Djeric.
Who’s in form?
Matt Hodgson – It was slim pickings in terms of Wildcats players who performed well in Thursday night's loss to the Adelaide 36ers. However, Hodgson produced likely his best game in Perth colours and he did so decidedly against the odds with the rest of his team struggling. He finished the night with 16 points and six rebounds on 7/9 shooting in 25 minutes of court time. It's the exact type of performance the 'Cats need from their centre if they are still to go anywhere this season, now he just needs his teammates along for the ride as he prepares to battle Nate Jawai and the Taipans.
Ben Ayre – Speaking of slim pickings, it wasn’t easy to find too many Taipans who played well in their last meeting at home to Melbourne United back on Sunday either. However, Ayre was thrown into the starting line-up following the season-ending ankle injury Scott Machado and he held his own nicely despite battling against the likes of Matthew Dellavedova, Shea Ili and Yudai Baba. He produced seven points and five assists while playing 24:30 in his biggest NBL performance as he tries to continue to show he deserves a full contract for next season.
Who needs to be?
Mitch Norton – The inspirational vice-captain made his return on Thursday night after missing the previous four games and now he will look to have even more of an impact second game up as the Wildcats look to take advantage of a Cairns team minus Scott Machado. He came off the bench in his first game back for seven points, four rebounds and two assists while playing just under 13 minutes. Expect him back in the starting line-up and to play much more on Saturday night as he looks to be a significant part of the Wildcats getting back on track for what would be a critical victory.
Tahjere McCall – In many ways, he becomes a better and more valuable player to the Taipans with Scott Machado not in the line-up as it allows him to have the ball in his hands more, but for Cairns to be any chance on Saturday night, he needs to find a way to be significantly more efficient. He has had his moments this season with the Snakes but his best performances has come when he's spent more time in the playmaking role and isn't put in a position to be a shooter which isn’t his strength. He needs to be mindful of getting his teammates involved and not dribbling the life out of the ball, but provided he gets the balance right between playmaking for his teammates and getting to the rim himself, he could be a difference-maker in Perth on Saturday night.
Who’s statting up?
- Adam Forde won championships in Perth as an assistant coach but has never beaten the Wildcats as head coach with either the Sydney Kings or Cairns Taipans, he is 0-7 so far
- Over the Wildcats' last four games, Jesse Wagstaff has scored 12 points in fourth quarters and Bryce Cotton only six. Cotton has not made a triple or been to the foul line in any of those final periods
- Bul Kuol needs three more three-pointers this season to set a new record for an Australian rookie in NBL history. He has currently made 55 this season to be ahead of the 50 made by Brad Newley at the Townsville Crocs in 2005 and is chasing down Shane Heal's 57 for the Brisbane Bullets in 1988
Who’s matching up?
Bryce Cotton v Bul Kuol – Bryce is coming off a rough night on Thursday where Sunday Dech played outstanding defence on him in Perth's loss at home to Adelaide, and now Bul Kuol will look to do something similar on the three-time MVP if Cairns are a chance of repeating the dose on Saturday. Cotton has gone for 60 points and 11 assists in the two previous games this season against the Taipans but that was a learning experience for a new to the league Kuol to attempt to guard the competition's best player for the first time. He's got almost his whole rookie season behind him now and it's going to be fascinating viewing to see how he attempts to clamp down on Cotton, and indeed how Cotton bounces buck from just seven points on 3/16 shooting on Thursday.
Who’s talking the talk?
The Wildcats are now not guaranteed of that 36th consecutive finals appearance and coach Scott Morrison didn’t hold back after Thursday's loss looking ahead to playing Cairns on Saturday.
"In any shoving match, one person is doing the shoving and one person is getting shoved. You can guess which one of those we were tonight," Morrison said.
"I don’t mean there was anything dirty, I mean one team came out tough to play hard to win, and one team came out soft. I think it's pretty obvious what's going on and of the nine or 10 losses we've had this year, I've tried to come in and take the blame, or at least say I can do better myself first.
"That's still the case whether we win or lose. But I think the players side of the locker room has to look inside themselves after this one and see if they care about getting into the playoffs or not.
"Adelaide is a good enough team to beat us on a good night when we play hard, but we sure as hell aren’t beating anyone when we came out like we did in the first half. It was embarrassing."
Now looking ahead to Saturday night's game against Cairns, Morrison knows they need to produce a vastly improved performance.
"We are shifting our focus to Cairns because the only thing we can do with this game is learn from it. We'll try and learn as much as we can in a short amount of time and then switch over to Cairns," Morrison said.
"You've got to figure that even though Cairns are snakes not sharks, but you have to figure they are smelling some blood in the water right now. They have to think if they come in and play hard they can beat us because we haven’t shown we are willing to play hard for 40 minutes."
Wildcats point guard and Mitch Norton played his first game since Perth's first match back at RAC Arena on Thursday night, and he knows the group shouldn’t need motivation from their coach to inspire them to perform.
He wants his teammates to find that drive with their season on the line from within and hopes they can rebound strongly on Saturday night.
"We've got a coach who puts together a game plan and when we're not executing that it falls in a bit of a hole," Norton said.
"Offensively has never been the issue and talent can get you by for some games, and we've seen that. But until you play hard and play the right way, we're not going to get the results we're looking for. There needs to be a lot of looking in the mirror and coming back at training prepared to get better.
"For no reason does Scott need to come in and motivate us. If we need motivation you're in the wrong job really. We've got signs on the wall in the locker room and right now they're just words, they need to become actions and quickly.
"We need to find why we play basketball whether it's your family or whatever it is because right now we're not playing for the name on the front of the jersey. That's probably the most disappointing and the only positive is we get to play again on Saturday to rectify all of this."
Taipans coach Adam Forde was concerned by what he saw from his team in losses to playoff contending teams in Round 19, and he is urging them to put the team first over the final two weeks.
"It really comes down to the individual. I know there are a lot of free agents on the team and I understand that, and there are a lot of guys who have done well and are going to warrant more income," Forde said.
"There are also guys who aren’t doing very well and they are a bit nervous about what the future looks like. I understand that aspect of the sport and I'm the most real about it than anybody else I feel.
"You have to look at how you finish out this season and understand that what is most recent and relevant in people's minds is how you go about this period right now.
"Yeah, we had a good little run winning three games in-a-row and everybody was enjoying each other's company but now we put out a performance like that on our home court. This shows a lot about how you carry yourselves in the next two weeks."
While Saturday night presents a homecoming for coach Forde back in Perth, that's the last thing on his mind as he looks for a bounce back performance from the Snakes.
"We have to worry about addressing other things so whether we're playing in Perth, it's a home game or whoever it is, we've got a job to do," Forde added.
"We almost double down on what the message has been so the critical film review will be the same, the way we go about practice will be the same and you sort of have to wash it.
"You still do your review and address the things going on, but I think this week ends up being a little bit more of one-on-one than a team type review. The good thing is it's a new game, it will be a new day and we'll go about it in the same process."
One player who did make the most of his opportunities on Sunday against Melbourne was Cairns development player Brayden Inger who hit the first two three-pointers of his NBL career.
While he is from New Zealand, he has spent time out west playing in the now NBL1 West competition at the Geraldton Buccaneers where he won a championship in 2019, and is looking forward to Saturday night as he continues his development.
"It's helped me massively. We train full-time against such talented dudes and if you put in those sort of areas you are going to improve," Inger said.
"Then you add in the work you do with the facilities and coach around you, and I'm definitely improving. I hope to keep improving more from here.
"Our first game was in Perth and it was one of the best atmospheres in the league so it's always cool to hopefully get some friends and family to the game. But the goal is to win and everyone has to go out there and just play as hard as we can."