PERTH - A sequence late in the Cairns Taipans' victory over the Perth Wildcats on Friday night aptly described the respective fortunes for both teams.
On one end, the Wildcats defence had stiffened - a rare feat, admittedly, in what was a lacklustre showing after half time. Following a trademark deflection from Damian Martin, one that sent the basketball flying into the back court, Scott Machado had to make gold out of garbage. With just three seconds remaining on the shot clock, Machado sprinted across the half court line. He was running out of time. What followed was a one-footed three point attempt that would make James Harden blush. It was an insanely difficult shot. It slid through the nylon.
Some ten seconds later, on the Wildcats following offensive possession, the team in red had worked the ball around the horn. Perth had broken the defence and generated a clean three-point attempt for Terrico White. It was an insanely clean look that any basketball coach would fawn over. It clunked off the rim.
Cairns’ 99-76 victory over the Wildcats was decided long before Machado and White exchanged long range efforts, although the imagery of their shot-making in those singular moments provided the perfect lens through which to examine tonight’s affair.
The Taipans offence erupted early, and was especially ruthless during the competitive portion of the second half. They finished the night shooting 57% from the field; a figure that feels low having witnessed their offensive clinic up close. The Wildcats were anything but comfortable with the ball in hand. Their shooting splits across the three levels - 33% from inside the arc, 32% behind the three-point line and 64% from the charity stripe - paint a ghastly picture. Although the most ugly attacking measure comes when analysing the raw numbers of their offensive output.
Perth finished with 28 made field goals and 27 offensive rebounds. There is an obvious feedback loop embedded into those numbers. Missed looks at the rim created a bounty of offensive rebounds that otherwise wouldn’t have existed, but the Wildcats' lack of touch sunk their hopes tonight. Defensive issues rode shot gun to their offensive ineptitude, and the end result was Perth’s most lopsided defeat at home since moving to RAC Arena.
“I am really excited with how the guys played ,” said Cairns head coach, Mike Kelly. “Excited with how they came in here and went about their business. As a team, we have had effort and we have talent, and it came together today. In the second half, we matched their physicality.”
For Cairns, tonight was affirmation of their process, after what has been a frustrating opening to the season. The Taipans entered tonight winless, despite holding second half leads in every game they played. Cairns crawled to a slender half time lead tonight and there would be no relenting in Western Australia. Led by fluorescent offensive performance from imports Cameron Oliver (32 points) and Machado (24 points), something different happened: their lead grew with each passing second half minute.
Oliver and Machado were especially impressive for Cairns. While Kelly was lavish with praise for his international stars, the well-rounded performance of his roster, top to bottom, was something Kelly was quick to speak on postgame.
“Cameron Oliver was special tonight and so was Scott Machado,” said Kelly. “I thought the entire group was great tonight in their roles. Jarrod Kenny was fantastic. He got us going and settled us down, while playing good defence. Majok Deng was big time for us in the entire second half. Everybody played their role really well.”
For the Wildcats, tonight’s fadeout punctuates an erratic opening to the season. It is undeniable that Perth has enjoyed a favourable entrance into its title defence. Three straight home games end with two victories. The first over a wounded Melbourne United side lacked conviction. While a beatdown of the Illawara Hawks provided the illusion of a contender flexing its muscle, the Wildcats have bigger issues than the flimsy shotmaking which doomed them against Cairns.
“Tonight was really disappointing,” said Trevor Gleeson. “Tonight it was our application. Anytime you get outworked on your home court by the opposition is very disappointing. That isn’t the Wildcats brand we have built up over the past five years. It was disappointing to cough that performance up.”
Defensive lapses and schematic errors that plagued the Wildcats during their season opener against United elevated back into focus during the third quarter. Cairns’ raw shooting numbers during the third stanza - 12 of 17 shooting for 28 points - provide the holistic view of an offence that efficiently sliced apart their opposition. The results at a granular level were unsurprisingly identical.
The Taipans methodically moved through the Wildcats defence. Their pick-and -roll attack was a step ahead of those in red and the team from Queensland lived at the rim as their lead grew. A two point half time margin ballooned out to 14 at the final break, and this was the precursor to the finishing move Cairns would soon deliver.
“I think it is more application for us,” said Gleeson. “We certainly went individually and didn’t stick tight as a unit. Defence has been our backbone and they were scoring at will. You can’t win in this league if you are giving up 100 points a game. Our defence hasn’t been up to scratch over the first three games.
“Teams are coming in here and shooting a high percentage. They are getting their tails up, and when they are feeling comfortable like Oliver did, he got his tail up and he was dropping it, then it feeds through the entire team. When we needed stops and we couldn’t get them.”
Wildcats captain Damian Martin credited Cairns for their selfless offensive display and that, according to Martin, is something his team must learn from
“They were great and taught us a lesson,” said Martin.”If you play with discipline, good things can happen. The league is too strong, one through nine, all teams have skill on their roster and if you can play to that skill, you can get some wins. Cairns did a great job tonight.”