It started with one of the best NBL games of all time, and it ended with the Perth Wildcats advancing to their second straight Grand Final. The NBL semi-final series between the Wildcats and the Cairns Taipans made for exhilarating viewing, and there are plenty of talking points in the aftermath.
1. Bryce Cotton can be stopped
The NBL's MVP was unstoppable in Game 1 of the series, as he almost single-handedly stole the game from the Taipans with 42 points. That included a finals-record ten made threes, as the Wildcats went small and looked to space the floor around him.
It was clear that Cairns needed to slow him down if they wanted to stay in the series. They did so to remarkable effect, holding Cotton to a combined 16 points on 7-28 shooting in the next two games. That all started off the ball, as the Taipans put everything into keeping Cotton away from the action. When he did get the ball, they often threw multiple bodies at him and forced others to make shots.
In the end, the Wildcats were able to get enough production from the rest of their roster. It was a close call, though, and it will be interesting to see if the Sydney Kings take a similar approach in the Grand Final.
2. Hot shooting isn't always enough
The Taipans were an explosive offensive team all season, and they were still scorching hot by their standards all series long. In all three games, they shot a higher percentage from the field than Perth; in two out of three games, they hit at the same or better rates from deep.
Despite all of that, they still lost two out of three games. The obvious explanation? Turnovers. They averaged 13 giveaways per game, a mark that would have ranked second in the league over the whole season. It was the undeniable cause of their overtime loss in Game 1, as they racked up 17 turnovers while Perth had just three.
The Taipans are living proof that making shots isn't the only factor when it comes to winning games. A part of the reason for that, though, is that...
3. Perth can grind out wins better than anyone
The fact that the Wildcats were still able to clinch the series despite just five points from Cotton in the decider should be remarkable. It isn't, but only because of the reputation they have built over the last two decades and change.
They have a handful of players that can step up offensively on any given night. In Game 3, it was Nick Kay (24 points) that set the tone early and Terrico White (26 points) that closed it out down the stretch. In fact, after a slightly disappointing season to date, White finally looked like the 2019 Grand Final MVP again as he scored the final seven points of the game.
Just as important, though, is the gritty defensive energy that the entire Perth roster brings every game. It's no surprise given the names on the court-- Kay, Damian Martin, Mitch Norton and Miles Plumlee are all highly regarded on that end of the floor. As a collective, they are a disruptive unit that never stops working. That's why they were able to force so many turnovers all series, and how they finally slowed the Taipans enough in Game 3 to advance.
4. Cam Oliver may be the best big in the league
This isn't breaking news, but Cam Oliver took another step in this series and played like one of the NBL's uber-elite. The numbers from game one and two were absurd, as he had a combined 41 points and 37 rebounds, and the eye test was even more impressive. His points came from every spot on the floor, and he showed the ability to spot up, post up and drive to the hoop.
It looked like the Wildcats had finally figured him out in Game 3, as he was held scoreless in the first half. The truly great players don't get tied down for long, though, and he exploded with 20 second-half points to keep Cairns in the contest. He was already an All-NBL Second Team selection, but Oliver played like an MVP candidate during this series.
5. Clint Steindl is a weapon
Should Clint Steindl have garnered a little more attention in the Best Sixth Man race? It's been an outstanding season for Perth's perimeter sniper, and he proved his value on the biggest stage with excellent showings in Games 2 and 3.
He was Perth's best player in their lone loss, scoring a team-high 18 points and keeping them in the game with timely shot-making. It was a little odd, then, that he played less than twelve minutes in Game 3, but he made the most of that time with 11 points including three triples.
In Steindl and Damian Martin, Perth have two contrasting players able to bring value on opposite ends of the floor. Coach Trevor Gleeson has the luxury of tailoring the minutes of each to suit individual matchups and scenarios. Martin has long been one of the league's most decorated defenders; Steindl deserves similar praise as one of its best shooters.
6. Cairns needs to lock their core in
It was already common knowledge that Cairns had one of the best import trios in the league. It must have still been nice, though, for the Taipans and their fans to see a little more evidence in the postseason. Oliver, Scott Machado and DJ Newbill all had big moments during the series, and none looked overawed by the occasion.
In fact, the whole Taipans roster applied themselves well under the blowtorch of a three-game series against the defending champions. It can be assumed that the Taipans are doing everything they can to retain their superstar imports, but all three have almost certainly added to their asking price as the season has gone on. This offseason represents a huge turning point for one of the league's smaller clubs.
7. Is Nick Kay somehow still underrated?
A strong outing for the Boomers at the Olympics set the expectations unreasonably high for Nick Kay this season. While his counting numbers may have seemed underwhelming for much of the year he was still a deserving All-NBL pick, and he found another gear to negate Cotton's struggles.
He averaged a double-double across the series, and his Game 3 performance was an all-around masterpiece. It's hard to say a player recognised as one of the five best in the league is "underrated", but it still feels like Kay's true worth to this team goes unappreciated far too often.
8. Perth's RAC Arena is a fortress
They went mighty close, but when it was all said and done the Taipans couldn't steal a win in Perth Arena. The Wildcats are now 13-3 there across the season, including wins in their last seven home games. When things get tight down the stretch, the ever-present raucous crowd becomes even more of an advantage.
That's why it feels like just one win in Sydney might be enough in the Grand Final series. The Kings are a strong team at home as well, but it might only take a hot shooting night on the road from Bryce Cotton to swing the series into Perth's favour.