SF2 Preview: Cairns Taipans v Perth Wildcats

When: 5pm (AEDT), Sunday 1 March

Where: Cairns Convention Centre

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

The last time

Perth 108 (Cotton 42, Kay 23, Norton 12) d Cairns 107 (Machado 31, Newbill 25, Oliver 19) OT, Semi-Final Game 1, RAC Arena, Perth

It doesn’t get any better than this – any sport, any league, anywhere would be hard pressed to stage a better contest than Perth, Cairns and the Red Army put on in Game 1. The shooting was staggering – a combined 35/70 from long range – the intensity was off the charts and there were nine lead changes after three quarter-time. The Taipans’ vaunted import trio were exceptional, but Bryce Cotton and Nick Kay were just a little better as they capitalised on Perth’s possession game dominance.

The now

It was the one that got away for Cairns, who came well-prepared to execute against Perth’s pressure, and had the bittersweet outcome of picking the Cats apart when they didn’t cough up the ball. The Taipans got shots from where they wanted, when they wanted as Scott Machado showed his class, but 12 turnovers from him, DJ Newbill and Cam Oliver offset so much of their good work. Eleven of the NBL’s past 14 semi-final series have been swept, so Cairns are battling history to keep their season alive.

Perth have swept five semi-final series in the Damian Martin era and wrapped up four of them on the road. They also demolished the Taipans in Game 1 at in the Far North in 2017 to set up their 2-0 win, with Cotton pouring in 34 points and the old firm of Martin and Jesse Wagstaff doing their usual thing, so the Wildcats will feel comfortable in this environment. To win in Cairns against this classy Snakes line-up, however, they will likely need a far greater number of offensive contributors than in Game 1.

The stats

- Cotton and Kay combined for 65 points on 15/25 three-point shooting and 12 assists in Game 1. The rest of the Wildcats roster added 43 points, 5/18 from range and 10 assists

- Perth launched more three-pointers than twos in Game 1, landing 20 from deep and just 14 inside. When they’ve hit 12 or more triples they are 8-1, compared to 8-4 when they hit between nine and 11, and 4-4 when they hit eight or fewer

- Cairns shot 61 per cent from the floor and 55 per cent from deep, but were -19 in the possession game (14 more turnovers, 5 fewer o-boards), which resulted in 16 fewer field-goal attempts and five fewer free throws than Perth

- The Taipans took just five shots from between the no-charge zone and the three-point arc. They went 21/32 at the rim (66 per cent), 3/5 on floaters and midrange (60 per cent) and 15/27 from deep (55 per cent)

The match-ups

Scott Machado v Damian Martin – Machado welcomed himself to the NBL post-season with a near triple-double, finding teammates at will, nailing five trifectas and finishing with style inside. Cairns were +7 with him on the court and -8 in the 5:41 he rested. Scotty didn’t weave the same magic in the extra period, however, and that had a lot to do with Damo, while Perth’s early lead had much to do with Mitch Norton exploiting Machado’s help D on Cotton.

DJ Newbill v Bryce Cotton – How do you get Bryce a rest? The MVP had 1:46 on the bench on Friday night and the Wildcats were outscored by six points. With such a short turnaround, and Newbill and Cairns sure to give him even more attention, he can’t play that many minutes again. DJ might have been spinning defensively as Bryce caught fire, but his 25 points at 75 per cent were almost match-winning, and Perth need to find some answers.

Cam Oliver v Nick Kay – The Taipans’ rotations need to show Kay some respect, he’s 9/10 from deep in his past three games while also pulling in 9 o-boards. He’s the silent assassin.

Same at the other end where Gleeson persisted with Miles Plumlee defending Oliver, allowing Space Cam to play like he was in another dimension. Kay is a must match-up for Oliver, even if it means inserting Majok Majok back into the starting five and pitting Plumlee more against Nate Jawai in a battle of the bench titans.

The quotes

You can’t help but feel Cairns woke up on Saturday morning bemoaning the one that got away.

In the Hungry Jack’s NBL’s toughest environment, they produced an offensive display for the ages when it came to creating and making shots.

“This is a group that hasn’t really been overawed very often, wherever it is. They played their game, the guys were comfortable offensively,” coach Mike Kelly said, but the caveat was just moments away.

“We just turned the ball over too much.”

It was perhaps the understatement of the night, but at the same time few would have been surprised to hear Kelly talking about it.

All season, turnovers have been the Taipans’ Achilles heel, something that was brutally laid bare by Brisbane in the final round, and more subtly exposed by Perth’s well-directed aggression.

“It’s pretty simple, they got a lot more shots than us. We shot the ball really well but didn’t get enough of the ball,” Kelly said.

“They turned up the pressure and we turned the ball over.”

It was hard to get a gauge on whether Perth’s defensive strategy, aimed at getting the ball out of Scott Machado’s hands and turning up the heat on other Taipans, worked or not.

Sure, they won the game and the 17 turnovers they forced were a big part of that, but Cairns ran up 93 points in regulation and 107 overall, and their 61 per cent shooting was the best conversion by a losing team in NBL playoff history.

Perth regularly blitzed Machado at the wrong moment or in the wrong floor position, allowing him to pick them apart with his passing game. When Scotty nailed a couple of threes they overreacted and allowed him to stroll down Main Street.

The more they tried to focus on the All-NBL First Teamer, the more he seemed to control the game. That was until late, when Damian Martin applied the clamps on several key plays.

For Bryce Cotton, the fact his team could survive 31 points and 9 assists from Machado was just another notch on the Wildcats’ belt.

“It's playoff basketball, and it seemed like any time we made a run, somebody on their team answered the bell,” he said.

“For them to shoot the ball as well as they did the whole game, usually that doesn’t happen in playoff basketball. Teams shoot well usually in spurts. So for us to weather that storm and still find a way to grind out a win, that’s big time and it’s testament to our team’s character.”

It was also a testament to his sheer brilliance, as he almost topped his unforgettable 45-point point performance that clinched the 2017 title.

Cairns came with a plan to get the ball out of Cotton's hands. Early on he found Mitch Norton twice before getting hot himself in the first term.

However, he did the most damage after three-quarter-time, making the most of the Taipans’ tiring defence with 23 incredible points on 15 attempts in the final 15 minutes, including six of his 10 triples.

“I thought we did a pretty good job on him, chasing him, making him make tough shots for the most part,” a helpless coach Kelly said afterwards.

“He's such a great player and a great shot-maker but I thought the guys did a good job of staying connected with him and helping on him and then rotating back to other guys, our guys worked their tails off.”

The reality soon dawned on Kelly, however, that his team had failed late in what they wanted to achieve on the dual MVP.

“He's hard to stop, you’ve got to limit him and don’t give him that many shots. What did he end up with? 26. That’s a lot of shots to give a good shooter,” he added ruefully.

Kelly has plenty of questions to ponder. The Taipans clogged the lane and forced 37 per cent two-point shooting, but in response Perth drained 20 triples. Do the Snakes bet the Cats won’t be able to do that on the road?

When Cotton was on the bench or Cairns successfully got the ball out of his hands, Perth looked rushed, and their selflessness disappeared as the likes of Clint Steindl and Terrico White tried urgently to get their own stroke going.

Does Kelly risk putting more eggs in the Cotton and Kay basket in Game 2, and see if the other Cats can create?

Most importantly though, how do the Taipans keep their turnovers down? Many of their miscues came from Perth’s help defence getting hands in, does Kelly need to get more movement in the offence to engage the off-ball defenders?

From a Cairns’ players point of view, it’s about taking care of the ball and taking care of the glass.

While the percentages tell you the Taipans rebounded well, in reality they gave up 8 second chance points in the final 10 minutes of the game, a killer in a one-point overtime loss.

“That’s one thing we really focus on because we know it’s their bread and butter, offensive rebounds,” Cam Oliver said, after his 17-board performance.

“We had some slip-ups where we didn’t get them and they retaliated.”

And then the big question is how Cairns deal with the Nick Kay-Jesse Wagstaff small-ball frontcourt, which has been the Wildcats’ most productive tall tandem all season.

“Their strategy was to get off and help for Bryce, and if they're going to do that we've got to stretch the floor,” coach Trevor Gleeson said afterwards.

“Jesse came straight on and hit two big threes, it really gave us confidence when that happened and got us back in the game.”

Cairns are well and truly in the game as far as this series is concerned, knowing they can match the Wildcats in Perth and having won 10 of their past 11 games at home. The only loss was to Gleeson’s men, but that hasn’t left Kelly too concerned.

“I feel really good about this team, it’s a great group that’s played consistently well over the past couple of months. I feel good about them bouncing back, the attitude has been phenomenal,” he said.

“They get hit, they get up and come back at them, so that’s what we’re going to do and I know Perth will as well, they're a great team. I think it’s going to be a great fight on Sunday.”


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