Here's how Perth's defence defined their latest NBL championship run
It is easy to get wrapped up in the historical significance of the Perth Wildcat’s ninth championship, but the manner in which they won shouldn’t be overlooked.
Like any other post-season, Grand Final basketball is all about moves and counter moves. The ability to quickly adapt and roll with a punch is often what separates winners from runner-ups. From the top down, coaching staff to players, adapt is exactly what Perth did.
The Wildcats were strong defensively in game one, but received a rude reality check in game two, after being slapped across the face by Melbourne. A disappointed Damian Martin was asked after the game if the desire that seemed missing in game two could be rekindled. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s something that can be fixed.”
From that point on, Perth was a different beast.
Spearheaded by the ever-dependable, and seemingly ever-youthful Martin, the Wildcats defence lived up their moniker. They were as ferocious as feral cats in games two and three, making life especially difficult for United’s formidable backcourt pair of Casper Ware and Chris Goulding.
Perth gave Melbourne’s star guards little opportunity to breathe. Coach Trevor Gleeson threw the kitchen sink at them, throwing full-court presses, double teams, traps and blitzes at them. From the moment the ball was live the Wildcat’s claws dug in. The results of the efforts were plain to see. Goulding and Ware were clearly rattled by the unwavering attention they received.
Space was a luxury they were rarely granted. Perth’s perimeter defenders fought through screens as if their lives depended on it. It would hardly be surprising, if Martin's outstretched hands were seared into Ware and Goulding’s retinas after being in their face so often. In the last two games, the pair shot 22.8% from three, combining for only 8 made attempts.
Perth made the three-point arc forbidden territory for Melbourne’s stars, chasing them off their spots and into tough contested shots. Like a jiu jitsu master, Perth turned a strength of their opponent into a weakness and a crutch, rather than a weapon.
Terrico White was consistently terrific in the Grand Final. It was a series-clinching performance, worthy of the Larry Sengstock medal. While White is the deserving face of Perth’s championship, their victory as much a testament to the willingness of their other stars to adapt to new circumstance and sacrifice some of their game.
Bryce Cotton is perhaps the best example of this. While Cotton’s game four feat will go down in NBL legend, leading up to the final game his scoring had been very patchy. His shooting was well down, making only 33% of his shots from the field and 27.6% from long range. Yet like all great players, Cotton still found a way to leave an imprint on the game. Cotton became Perth’s playmaker. He averaged 7.3 assists, nearly twice his season average. His passing denied Melbourne the reprieve they had hoped to receive from his slump.
Nick Kay was another of Perth’s stars who changed his focus to suit the needs of the team. From a scoring perspective, Kay did little to set the world on fire during the Grand Final. Instead, it was everything else that was outstanding. Kay was the perfect defensive counterpart to Martin. With Martin causing headaches on the perimeter, Kay was the Wildcats' defensive anchor in the paint. His strength and physicality made driving to the paint an unappealing prospect for Melbourne’s slashers.
Kay’s rebounding also remained at an elite level. He averaged 7.3 for the series, with 3.3 per game coming at the offensive end. Kay’s offensive rebounding, with the help of fellow board-bully Tom Jervis, was what sealed game four for Perth, and ultimately the championship.
With their ninth title, the fourth in six seasons, the Perth Wildcats are the undisputed gold standard of Australian domestic basketball. With their storied history and their malleable, Swiss army knife approach to the game, the Perth Wildcats are making a case as the NBL's answer to the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. Much like the great Texan organisation, Perth is a franchise where the collective comes before the individual, where the team identity is one that players are hungry to embrace and embody. And much like the Spurs, you can never ever count them out. The 2019 NBL championship only cements that legacy even further.
A lot of factors have led to the Wildcats' victory: depth, coaching, premium imports, veteran leadership, and it's all true.
One reason that might have been overlooked, is their ability to adapt and mould themselves to new circumstances, both individually and as a cohesive unit. That is without a doubt, the 2019 Wildcats' most impressive characteristic.