PERTH – Bryce Cotton was simply too much to handle.
There are many complex ways to describe what Cotton did for the Perth Wildcats, and to the Cairns Taipans, on Friday night. In its purest form, though, Cotton carried the Wildcats to victory in what was unquestionably the best game of the NBL 2019/20 season, in the NBL semi-finals.
Cotton’s Game 1 masterpiece can be quantifiably stated to the extent of 42 points on 26 shots (including a whopping 10 of 19 shooting from three) and six assists. The box score will show that he was plus six on the night and that he remarkably only turned the basketball over once, but the measurable will never come close to describing how the newly minted league MVP carried his squad in their thrilling 108-107 overtime victory.
Perth’s offence – which lead the league during the regular season - became simplistic during the fourth quarter and overtime. It distilled down to the simplest form of attack in the sport: give the basketball to your best player and let him create offence. Cotton responded, scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“There are some big shots to be made and Bryce wants the ball in his hands because he can make them under pressure,’ said Wildcats head coach Trevor Gleason after the game. “That is why he is who he is: a great player who loves the pressure situation.”
Cotton attempting 19 three-point looks like an erroneous concept when just looking at the box score, yet it perfectly crystallises the tenor of Perth’s victory. Their MVP was allowed to shoot just enough to secure yet another playoff victory.
“It’s playoff basketball,” Cotton said postgame. “It felt like we time we made a run, someone on their team made a play or a crucial three that kept them in the game.
“The confidence is always there. I was just playing within the rhythm of the game and my team mates did a great job of helping me get open. It was just a collective team effort and the rhythm was definitely there tonight.”
While Cotton’s brilliance rightfully warrants all the attention is will receive, there were so many other scintillating talking points from the Game 1.
Nick Kay’s clutch three to force overtime, was the loudest illustration of how he served the perfect role of Robin to Cotton’s Batman. Damian Martin’s performance in overtime; highlighted by a trademark steal under the Taipans offensive basket in the dying moments.
What about those who left defeated on this night?
Scott Machado was sensational, finishing with 37 points and nine assists. On any other evening, he would have seize control as the most amazing performer. He likely would have left the arena victorious, too, if it were not for Cotton. Just as it was with MVP polling last week, he was relegated to second best.
Then there is Cameron Oliver who provided 32 points and a countless supply of swag to the Taipans. With each bucket, he walked a little bit taller. With each defensive stop on the other end, he ran a little faster. His Taipans teammates loved it. They fed off the Californian’s enduring energy and Cairns got themselves into a winning position.
A double-digit lead in the third quarter was their high water mark. While this eroded, the Taipans again rose to lead by three in the final minute. They just couldn’t perform the finishing move needed to suffocate the Wildcats. They left the door open, allowing the Cotton and Kay tag team act to break their hearts.
“There is some frustration,” Taipans head coach Mike Kelly admitted postgame. “Also pride in how the guys stood up, played through mistakes and shot making from the wildcats. We played a solid game against a really good team.”
Five players played over 39 minutes. The Wildcats took 43 three-point attempts and only turned the basketball over three times. Cairns dominated the second quarter to the extent of 34-16. They shot 60% from the field and lost! Game 2 is to be played just over 36 hours removed from this all – how will Cairns bounce back from a gut wrenching defeat? These are just a handful of the many thought provoking headlines from Game 1 that will forever have one thing in common: they are lost to history because of Cotton.
That’s the power of greatness. It can make the most extraordinary of feats appear mundane. Cotton did just that on Friday night. He is the MVP of the NBL. He is the most electrifying force in the Australian basketball. He has forged a career by providing the most successful NBL franchise in history with their newest legend. It’s quite the resume, and yet, Cotton topped it all with one night at the office.
“He is so special,” Damian Martin said after the game. “When he shoots the ball, you can almost start running back because you know it’s going in. He’s as good a player as the Wildcats have had. He went to another level and for him to stand up under the spotlight when we were down by nine was something special.”
Thanks to Cotton, the Wildcats sit one game away from earning another invite into the championship round. They require just one more victory to defend their title on the grandest stage. That number should fuel their confidence, too. They have best player in the NBL on their side, as there is no one better than Cotton. He showed that once more during Game 1.