Perth Wildcats' championship defence begins with challenge from talented, rising Cairns Taipans

Two teams with vastly different styles, journeys and stories hold promise to an exciting NBL playoffs: the Perth Wildcats, the defending champions who have been a bastion of organisational excellence and postseason experience, will face north Queensland’s Cairns Taipans, a team that went from dead last to potential championship contender within a year, and have rattled the league with an exciting brand of basketball.

Cairns held a 2-1 advantage in their head-to-head season record this season, but new challenges await. These teams will be facing a rematch from three years ago, but with Perth carrying the higher seed this time. The Taipans will be heading into enemy territory in front of the Red Army, with Game 1 to be played at RAC Arena.

Following a record ninth championship last season, the Wildcats retained eight players from the championship-winning roster, and Trevor Gleeson's three-year extension was the perfect move Perth needed to run it back. After opening the season with just one loss through their first six games, the ‘Cats fell to 8-5 in December, and went into January with back-to-back losses against the Adelaide 36ers and Brisbane Bullets. The Wildcats made their move - they released first-year import Dario Hunt and welcomed seven-year NBA vet Miles Plumlee. Having played 346 games at the NBA level, Plumlee had no problem adjusting to the rigours of the NBL, displaying sensational positioning and an ability to read the game. In his debut game off the bench, the centre added six points, three rebounds, one steal and two blocks – flashing his well-rounded style of play. By late January, the Plumlee effect began to contain the Red Army; in a one-point victory over the New Zealand Breakers, Plumlee notched up 23 points and 18 rebounds.

Wildcats captain Damian Martin spoke to The Pick and Roll on Monday at the NBL Finals launch in Melbourne, reiterating coach Gleeson’s message that we have yet to see the big man at his best. “It’s his basketball IQ. He’s one of those guys who watches the play once and not only is he able to pick up on the play, but he also knows the second and third options within it; the counters, if it’s guarded certain ways, he knows what to look for.” Martin said. “At 6-foot-11, his athleticism and strength, he is one of the very few people in the world who can guard one through five. He slides his feet, he knows the play, he picks up on individuals’ tendencies… I think his best is yet to come.”

The Taipans on the other hand, changed their fortunes and ascended behind an identity shift. Their journey was well-encapsulated in a recent feature by The Pick and Roll’s Jordan McCallum, and the team's rise can be distilled down to an overriding theme: greatness is achievable with a mix of hard-working, talented and passionate people. Cairns welcomed a fresh mix of young and experienced players to help transform their season, and ultimately added 10 more wins compared to their previous campaign.

The team aligned over the off-season, bringing in both local talent and NBA-level athletes. Players such as Kouat Noi, Scott Machado and Cam Oliver arrived with international experience and superstar potential. The squad did not impress in their first three games, but an early season win over Perth put Cairns on the radar. Subsequent wins over Melbourne United, the Sydney Kings and Perth (again) confirmed the Taipans' arrival, confirming their status as more than a flash-in-the-pan, entertaining highlight reel, but instead as a versatile team that could vary their lineups and abruptly change game tempos, depending on the need. A good deal of the team's season success can be attributed to newly-anointed Defensive Player of the Year, DJ Newbill's career-best performance, but it has been American-born, Brazilian point guard Machado who became the team's barometer. Machado has been their offensive engine, and wove and dished his way into a new NBL season record for most assists made, as well as All-NBL first team selection; teammates Newbill and Oliver made All-NBL second team. Credit also went to head coach Mike Kelly, who was honoured as coach of the year at the NBL awards night.

Taipans wing Fabijan Krslovic enjoyed his first season after being elevated from development player, and described admiration he has for everyone involved. “We saw glimpses of it early, we saw what we could do, what we were capable of, and it’s been a lot of fun growing and a lot of fun getting to know how to play with each other,” Krslovic shared with The Pick and Roll. “The coaches and the front office, they put together the personnel to carry out [Mike Kelly’s] vision, it’s been a lot of fun being a part of it. He allows us to play freely, play without stress, without worry and he does such a great job.”

A difference maker for the Taipans this series, could be Majok Deng. in his first season as a Taipan, Deng remained a valuable contributor playing alongside Oliver as a stretch four, and filling a much-needed void when Noi missed games through injury. As a role player, Deng consistently makes the right play through simple means: run the floor, crash the glass and bring energy to the team. This season, Deng has contributed in nearly every facet statistically, averaging 13 points, 4.4 rebounds and one block per game. His 36.5% clip from three makes him a constant threat and an extra perimeter option for Machado's playmaking wizardry. Even during Cairns’ big loss to Brisbane in their final game of the season, Deng impressed with 20 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes. With a likely matchup against the ever-consistent Nick Kay, Deng will need to bring that same energy which rewarded him with additional playing time throughout the season. The 207cm South Sudanese-Australian embodies the team-first mentality instilled by coach Kelly.

A clinical display of rebounding, efficiency and ball-use –Perth owned the lowest turnover percentage of any team– saw the defending champs turn into the #1 ranked team on offence, behind MVP Bryce Cotton's sterling two-way dominance, and finish just one win behind the top-seeded Sydney Kings. The Wildcats’ finals dominance is well-known and respected among the league, and their consistent excellence a credit to the organisation. Perth appeared in 33 straight finals, and finished on top of the standings six times. Historically speaking, the Wildcats have won 22 of 26 series as a higher seeded team, which does not bode well for Cairns.

Since the team's inception, the Taipans have qualified for the finals seven times, and their most recent performance came against the Wildcats in 2017, when they lost in the semis to the lower-ranked Perth without a postseason win. Despite the history, the Taipans are arguably in the best position to win their maiden NBL championship this time, with an unmatched style of speed and tempo.

Martin, ever the seasoned veteran, understands that it's important to stay even keeled for the series ahead, and there’s a greater sense of challenge in this current competitive environment. “With the two-week break, it’s a matter of not getting ahead of yourself. Sometimes you can play the game so many times in your head before the ball is even tipped off, that you go into Game 1 mentally fatigued.”

"Nothing's been taken away from us yet and any team can be beat," Cotton told AAP. "But we're the defending champs and we're going to do everything we can to try to keep our throne, no matter who the opponent is."