R3 Preview: Perth Wildcats v SE Melbourne Phoenix

When: 9.30pm (AEDT), Friday 29 January

Where: RAC Arena, Perth

Broadcast: ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand; Twitch

The last time
Perth 88 (Cotton 27, Blanchfield 16, Mooney 13) d SE Melbourne 76 (Creek 17, Gliddon 15, Gibson 13), Round 2, RAC Arena

This was closer than the final scoreline suggests and it did only take place five days ago. Neither team has travelled nor had a game in between so their sole focus has been on one another for the rematch. Bryce Cotton turned the game not only with his 27 points but also five steals for the Wildcats while Keifer Sykes struggled in his first match up with him. Despite that, the Phoenix led the game with five minutes to go so this was a tough battle.

The now
The Perth Wildcats were in quarantine for two weeks leading into Sunday's season opener and only got freed hours before tip-off before going on to beat the South East Melbourne Phoenix by 12 points in the finish. But they really only took over the game in the last five minutes which is now momentum they will be hoping to carry into the rematch on Friday night back in front of the Red Army.

The 'Cats know that once they hit the road after two more home games on Sunday and next Friday against the New Zealand Breakers that their return date to Perth is uncertain, and it could indeed end up not being until after the NBL Cup is won and contested in Melbourne. So they will be determined to rack up the wins on their home court while they have the chance as the chemistry continues to build with this new group chasing what would be a historic championship three-peat.

The South East Melbourne Phoenix can now feel they are so close to getting home. They got the news they had to pack up and leave Melbourne on New Year's Eve, flew out to Tasmania at 6.30am on New Year's Day and they've been living out of hotels since. But before they get home on Sunday night, they have to do battle with two undefeated teams of #NBL21 – the Wildcats on Friday and Melbourne United on Sunday in Bendigo.

But that glimmer of light of knowing a month on the road is about to end might just be the spark they need to not only ensure they can enjoy going home for the comforts of it, but to also do so on a winning note. They left Adelaide on a winning high after losing the first game against the 36ers so will be hoping their two-game trip to Perth ends on a similar note. They did have their chances on Sunday at RAC Arena as well. If they can close the deal better, take better care of the ball and Keifer Sykes now getting a second look at Bryce Cottons should all give them a shot.

The stats
- The Wildcats and Phoenix have played four times now and Perth has a perfect 4-0 record with an average winning margin of 19.8 points. The two games at RAC Arena last season saw the 'Cats win by 31 and 26 points, and then on Sunday again by 12.

- Two numbers South East Melbourne will want to see shrink from Sunday were 16 and 20. The 16 offensive rebounds Perth collected led to 13 second chance points while the 20 turnovers they coughed up led to 26 points for the Wildcats.

- The shooting numbers between Bryce Cotton and Keifer Sykes told the story on Sunday. Cotton went 8/15 from the field, 2/4 from deep and 9/11 at the line for the 'Cats for 27 points. Sykes went 3/15, 1/5 and 3/4 for 10 points. 

- Win the possession game and you win the game, it's a saying as old as time but continues to ring true. The Wildcats had 14 more shots and an extra free-throw than the Phoenix on Sunday, and won the game by 12 with shooting percentages remarkably similar (42 to 41 per cent)

The key men
Todd Blanchfield – It's obvious how important Bryce Cotton is to the Wildcats but history tells us we can rely on a consistent contribution from him. What the 'Cats are now desperate for is that reliable second scorer on the back of the departure of Nick Kay and Terrico White, and Blanchfield has to be the man to continue to stand up in that role in the three spot. He did well in his Wildcats debut on Sunday with 16 points on 3/7 shooting from three in his 284th NBL appearance, and if he can average around that many points and take somewhere around 13 shots a game, he's giving Perth exactly what they need in support of Bryce.

Keifer Sykes – A lot rests on the shoulders of Keifer as he prepares to lock horns with two-time MVP Bryce Cotton for the second time in five days. He began Round 2 on fire in Adelaide leading the Phoenix to the win with 24 points and eight assists while hitting 4/7 from downtown. He had been looking forward to attempting to lockdown Bryce Cotton in Perth pre-match, but it didn’t eventuate and he ended up having a rough night at both ends. He's more than capable of responding, though, and if he does, South East Melbourne has a real shot of leaving Perth winners.

The quotes
Jesse Wagstaff will be captaining the Perth Wildcats for the second time on Friday night and it just happens to be the 349th game of his six-time championship winning career. That puts him equal with the legendary Andrew Vlahov.

Wagstaff will now join Vlahov on Friday night and surpass him with his 350th game on Sunday also at home to the New Zealand Breakers. That will leave just James Crawford (371), Shawn Redhage (380) and Ricky Grace (482) ahead of him on the all-time games played list at the 'Cats, but in typical Wagstaff fashion, he played it down.

"You kind of lose track of things like that but everyone has been asking about it, and when you first get here 10 years ago you don't think about those things," Wagstaff said.

"But it's a huge honour and you look at the names on that list, and they are legends of the club. To be able to equal a guy like Vlahov is pretty humbling. 

"He must be pretty devastated he didn’t get to 350 to be honest, surely he could have played one more game, but I haven’t thought about the milestone much myself. We have a game to prepare for on Friday and that's all I'm going with."

Wildcats Trevor Gleeson isn't looking beyond the Phoenix on Friday night even with the knowledge they have two more home games against the Breakers to look forward to before a potentially extended road trip.

But he knows playing a team on the second end of back-to-back games means you have to make adjustments, and as a result is fully aware of the challenge South East Melbourne will present.

"We are just focusing on the next game. We know it's like a playoff game and there are tactics involved when you play back-to-back teams so we are really locked into the Phoenix before we think about what's to come beyond it," Gleeson said.

"Last week was like Christmas and it was Christmas Day on game day where we could open up our presents but didn’t know what we were going to get. But this week we know a little bit more what to expect. We've ticked that fitness box and we still have a long way to go to get to where we need to get to, but there were positive signs."

Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell is looking for his first win against the Wildcats on Friday night and he took a lot of heart from their showing on Sunday at RAC Arena to suggest if they can tidy up a couple of things, it could eventuate.

"There was a lot of self-inflicted wounds that were performed during the course of the game (on Sunday), myself included," Mitchell said.

"I thought our repeated turnovers were poor, repeated non box-outs were poor, and my job is to make sure those don’t happen and to stop it in its tracks. I feel like they’re two very fixable areas and despite the fact we were so poor in those areas, with 90 seconds to go we were still a chance. We just need improvement in those areas to put ourselves in a good position (in Friday’s rematch)."

Adam Gibson is the most experienced player in the NBL having now played 439 games. He has had quite the history with the Wildcats too including some classic semi-final battles at the Gold Coast Blaze, a Grand Final match up at the Adelaide 36ers or another playoff battle when he was back with the Brisbane Bullets. 

Perth hasn’t always been a happy hunting venue for him, but it means any win out west is one to savour and he's hoping they can do the right things to make that happen on Friday night with a team still finding their groove.

"It’s early days. We’ve got half a new team from last year and we haven’t been able to play too many actual games. We should’ve won that first game (against Adelaide) in double overtime - we missed free throws, we missed shots," Gibson said.

"We’re still confident. We’ve been together for a long time on the road so we can’t wait to get back to Melbourne but for us it’s just about working on stuff we’ve been poor at…some of our turnovers were just under-15’s type stuff. 

"You take five turnovers away, that’s 10 points they don’t get and it’s a different ball game. Bryce can still get his numbers but if we take care of the ball turnover wise and box out…it goes a long way. Those two areas will be focuses for Friday."


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