Could Nick Kay be the key?

With the Grand Final series all tied up one game apiece, Melbourne and Perth will be back to the drawing board this week, looking for ways to break the deadlock when the series resumes this weekend.

For both teams, these schemes should focus on the success or failure of Wildcats' forward, Nick Kay.

The 2016 Rookie of the Year is coming off a career-best season. His points (15.0), rebounds (8.7), assists (3.0) and three-point shooting (43%) have been career-best numbers, spanning his four years in the NBL. Against Melbourne, these numbers went to a whole new level.

The 2018/19 season showed Kay to be a beast against United. In four regular season games, he was a puzzle the defending champions could not solve. He turbo-charged his scoring to 17.3 ppg, shot 55.1% and imposed himself on the glass with 11.3 rpg, considerable increases on his season averages.

In the two Grand Final games played so far, Nick Kay hasn’t been the anti-Melbourne force we grew accustomed to seeing. While his defence has been good, his scoring has dropped to 10 ppg and his rebounding (a battle Perth badly lost in game two) has nearly halved to 6 rpg.

Melbourne’s defensive adjustments deserve a lot of credit. During the series opener, which Perth comfortably won, Kay was able to get the mismatches he wanted. Melbourne’s switches were sluggish and unresponsive, allowing the Wildcats to repeatedly cherry pick their preferred matchups for their gun forward, namely, Casper Ware. A Kay versus Ware matchup in the post is rarely going to pan out in Ware’s favour without help. Kay’s higher than normal shot release is hard to defend at the best of times, and he was able to comfortably shoot over the top of the small guard on multiple occasions.

In Game Two, it was predictably clear the Wildcats were eager to exploit that same chink in the armour.

In front of a rabid home crowd, Melbourne’s defensive switching was in top form. They flowed through screens like water over rocks, choking the oxygen out of Perth’s offensive rhythm. United forced the ball out of Kay’s hands and into the hands of Cotton, whom Melbourne’s best perimeter defender, Casper Ware, was able to keep in check.

However, Melbourne’s defence doesn’t form the entire picture. Even with their close attention, Kay has still been shooting with 47% accuracy to this point in the series. What is concerning is his lack of volume (8.5 shots per game) and involvement in the Wildcat’s offence, especially when compared to Cotton.

It’s not uncommon to see a star’s shooting percentage take a hit in the playoffs. This has been particularly true for Cotton. His scoring plummeted in this series to 14.5 ppg, shooting a worrying 33% on a team-leading 16.5 shots per game. As brilliant as Cotton is, it’s clear he is in the midst of a trough, one Perth badly needs him to escape from.

In light of that undeniable reality, it seems strange that Perth isn’t alleviating the burden on their gun import by putting the ball in the hands of another player, one who showed all season he was a tough man for United to stop. Perth has at their disposal a legitimate big three in Cotton, White and Kay. Yet so far, looking at the allocation of their scoring responsibilities, it has been a duo rather than a trio.

Points Field Goal % Shots Cotton 14.5 33% 16.5 White 18 48.1% 13.5 Kay 10 47% 8.5

The solution isn’t to ice out Cotton in favour of Kay, but the Perth coaching staff must get their young forward more involved if they wish to retain home court advantage and win the title. Perth needs Kay to be more assertive. At times, Kay seemed reluctant to go to work when he didn’t get the matchup he wanted.

The danger Melbourne poses comes from how well they get their three best scorers involved. Goulding, Ware and Kennedy are all averaging in double-figure in shots attempted, and their productivity is opening up the game for their teammates. It wouldn’t do Perth any harm to steal from their opponent’s playbook in that regard.

How Kay plays and how he is used in the next two to three games could decide how this series concludes. Melbourne is going into game three with all the momentum and nothing to lose, they have to win a game in Perth. For the Wildcats to wrestle back the driver’s seat they need to throw something at Melbourne that they haven’t seen so far in the series. Perhaps that certain something is a Nick Kay with all guns blazing.