The Perth Wildcats and Cairns Taipans head into the NBL Finals with winning form. The Wildcats snuck in by winning 4 out of their last five games, while the Taipans went on to win an improbable six from seven.
After splitting the season series 2-2, the two hottest teams in the league will now square off in the Semi-Finals, starting on Friday night in Cairns.
The Taipans have home-court advantage, which is a big factor in the matchup. Both sides have historically struggled to win games against each other away from home. That proved true again this season, with both teams winning on their court – although Perth was somewhat fortunate to come away with two wins, needing overtime to down Cairns.
The Wildcats need to somehow steal one up in Far North Queensland while defending home-court in the Jungle.
Cairns: Brute Force and Finesse
First, the brute force:
The last time the two teams met, Cairns overpowered Perth, largely down to big Nate Jawai. The game seemed to be in control for the ‘Cats well into the third-term before Jawai took over.
His brute force in the paint was too much to handle for Perth, who were missing Matty Knight due to a concussion. Big Nate bullied Perth, amassing a monster seven offensive rebounds and 22 points. He was able to get Jameel McKay in early foul trouble and manhandled Angus Brandt. Having Matty Knight back will help. He’s the ‘Cats best post-defender and defensive rebounder.
However, Knight most likely won’t start on Jawai – McKay should get the first crack. Jameel might be the best rim-protector in the NBL, and it makes sense to have him defending as close to the ring as possible – which means manning Nate Jawai.
Even though Knight is better suited to defending Big Nate, Perth’s defence is at it’s best with McKay patrolling the lane.
Knight might not even get the second crack on the big-man. Brandt has defended Jawai better in the past than what he showed last time up, and he’ll likely get a chance to redeem himself.
But if McKay and Angus do struggle against big Nate, it’s nice to have the luxury of Knight as a fallback option.
Jawai is very big, and he’s very strong, but, of course, he’s not the most mobile big-man – which Perth can look to exploit in a number of ways.
If Jameel can hold his own against Nate, it opens up the possibility of punishing Cairns on the other end of the floor.
Jameel doesn’t possess Jawai like strength and post game, but he’s much more mobile and should look to use that to his advantage. It wouldn’t be efficient to throw McKay the ball in the post 20 times a game, but in certain situations, in can be effective.
This wouldn’t work as well when Jameel shares the floor with Knight, but with Wagstaff on the floor, the court is spread, and McKay has room to attack.
McKay is super fast for a Center, and Jawai has no chance keeping up with him in the open court. When big Nate is on the floor, Perth should be looking to push the ball at every opportunity.
Even in semi-transition situations, Jawai’s lack of mobility can easily be exploited.
And it’s not just limited to the transition game, Casey Prather and Bryce Cotton can do significant damage coming off on-ball screens and handoffs.
Again, this works better with a quick lineup on the floor, probably with Jesse Wagstaff playing alongside McKay. Which, in turn, weakens the Wildcats defensive rebounding.
But the Wildcats have options against the threat of Jawai: They can fight fire with fire, using a big lineup with Knight at Power Forward; Or downsize and look to run Cairns off the floor.
Taipans Death Unit
While Cairns have the ability to beat you with brute force, they seem to be even more dangerous going with finesse.
The release of Spatial Jam’s advanced lineup data ( every NBL fan should check it out) has shown us that the most damaging lineup this season has been a Taipans bench unit.
since it’s NBL awards night, the award for NBL’s best lineup goes to the insane Taipans bench [Weeks | McCarron | Weigh | Loughton | Egwu] pic.twitter.com/GSjuYW9PtS
— andrewbprice (@andrewbprice) February 13, 2017
That, small-ball or pace and space (whatever you want to call it), five-man group is doing serious damage to opposing teams. In just over 100 possessions they’ve been on the court together, they have outscored the opposition by 46 points – most in the league.
The reason it works so well is that four of the five players shoot 3-pointers at over 39% and all five play solid defence – they all have a lower defensive rating number than the team average.
The 106 possessions they’ve spent on court equates to, roughly, a full game and a half of action- which isn’t a huge sample size. Maybe that numbers comes down over time, but you can’t take away the damage they’ve already inflicted.
And the Wildcats have already felt some of that damage. In the short 17 possessions they’ve played against Perth, that ‘Death Lineup’ has outscored the ‘Cats by 13 points!
It goes without saying that Perth needs to find an answer to stopping that unit.
The answer to curtailing that smallball-death-lineup could lie within Perth’s very own smallball unit.
The Wildcats can trot out their version of pace-and-space with this group:
Cotton, Prather, DKD, Wagstaff, McKay
With those five players, you have a terrific blend of outside shooting, shot creation and solid defence. Unfortunately, they haven’t spent a single minute on the court together this season.
Hopefully, that changes soon.
Of course, defensively, keeping Nate Jawai off the glass, and stopping the Death Unit is crucial in limiting the Taipans.
On offence, it might be as simple as hitting 3-pointers. In the short Bryce Cotton era, when the ‘Cats have shot the 3-ball at a better percentage than the opposition, they have a 6-1 record. When they don’t, they’re 1-3.
Casey Prather and Jesse Wagstaff, for whatever reason, have struggled shooting from outside. They both have the ability and recently they’ve nailed those 3-pointers. If that continues, this team is hard to stop.
It took the Perth Wildcats some time to adjust to the arrival of Bryce Cotton, but they’re certainly settled now. By, just, sneaking into the Finals, they’ve given themselves a real shot at winning back-back titles.
With how well the team is playing, you’d back them in a five-game series against any team, even without home-court.
A three-game series is more of a lottery, especially with two away matches in Cairns. However, Championship teams find a way.
This Perth team has championship talent, and hopefully, they’ve now jelled enough to win it.