Perth played the last game of the regular season without star imports Bryce Cotton and Terrico White.
The Sydney Kings delivered their best performance of the NBL season on Friday night to produce the upset of 2017-18 but what it did was open up questions over the Perth Wildcats quest for a three-peat with coach Trevor Gleeson questioning his team’s desire.
The two-time defending NBL champion Wildcats had lost their previous two matches at Perth Arena either side of Christmas, to the Brisbane Bullets and Melbourne United, but they still sat on top of the ladder heading into Friday’s clash with the bottom placed Kings.
Sydney was also without star swingman Brad Newley who remained home for the birth of his child and superstar point guard Jerome Randle was battling an adductor injury while captain Kevin Lisch was still on a minutes restriction on return from his torn calf.
To top that off, the Kings had never won in Perth Arena losing all 11 attempts by an average of 22.4 points while having lost their last 14 visits to Perth overall since returning to the NBL for the 2010-11 season. Overall they had won just three of 28 games against the ‘Cats in that period.
The signs all pointed to the Wildcats building on the momentum of last Sunday’s win on the buzzer thanks to Bryce Cotton over the Brisbane Bullets and to fire back emphatically after those last two losses on their home floor.
It wasn’t to be though. The Kings came out firing from the outset racing to a 10-2 lead and never fell behind the entire night.
They went on to lead by 19 points in fact with less than three minutes left to be on track to score the biggest ever win for a visiting team at Perth Arena. Cotton and Jean-Pierre Tokoto combined for 15 points from there to at one point make the margin five points but Sydney held firm to win 84-77.
The Kings remain on the bottom of the table at 6-16, but it was a win made of heart for Andrew Gaze’s team and it was all the more impressive considering they did have to overcome conceding 21 offensive rebounds, giving up 15 turnovers and attempting 11 fewer shots.
It is a good sign that the Kings might have something to work with going forward under Gaze.
But the signs were not at all good for the Wildcats as they attempt to win a championship three-peat for the first ever time.
Cotton was held scoreless for the first half and while he ended up with 17 points, most of those were in junk time and he was clearly outplayed by a Randle who was closer to half than full fitness.
Tokoto battled hard for 20 points and 11 rebounds while Lucas Walker had another double-double with ten points and ten boards. Jarrod Kenny and Jesse Wagstaff bobbed up to hit three three-pointers apiece.
But for much of the night, the Wildcats looked somewhere between disorganised and uninterested, which is the opposite of why they have won three of the past four NBL titles.
Gleeson couldn’t hide his frustration and disappointment following Friday’s loss, but expects and hopes for a significant response again against the Kings in Sydney on Sunday.
“This hurts, it really does. It’s hurting but you have to wear it on the chin, be a man and step up next game. Next game we will find out how we respond,” Gleeson said.
“It’s not a very good trend we are setting the last three games where we are behind all the time, and by double digits. It’s really disappointing that our starting group can’t get us off on the right foot.
“I’m very disappointed and I really have to question the desire and if we have that motivation to be a championship team. Right now it doesn’t look like it. We take shortcuts when they are available and we’re not playing team basketball.
“Sydney played a much better team game than us which is disappointing. We missed layups and easy points so you have to ask if that’s skill set or mentally, and it’s probably the latter. It’s very disappointing.”
The problem that stood out was Perth’s ineffective big men. Angus Brandt had some good looks early but couldn’t get his hook shots to fall. He finished with four points and three rebounds in 18 minutes.
Then there was Derek Cooke Jr He was a liability for the ‘Cats when on the court for 16 minutes. He didn’t score and had three rebounds and two turnovers before earning the ire of his coach.
The Wildcats had a big decision to make on keeping Cooke for the remainder of the season or trying to upgrade their import big spot similar to what the New Zealand Breakers have done by bringing in former NBA centre Rakeem Christmas.
But they are now stuck with Cooke and likely will live or die by that decision based on what he produces. Comparing to the other three teams in the top four, a front court of Cooke, Brandt, Wagstaff and Walker looks light on.
Certainly when Melbourne is full strength with Josh Boone, Majok Majok, David Andersen, Tai Wesley and Tohi Smith-Milner it doesn’t stack up. But nor does it against New Zealand’s Christmas, Alex Pledger, Rob Loe, Mika Vukona and Finn Delany, or even Adelaide’s Matt Hodgson, Daniel Johnson, Majok Deng and Josh Childress.
The only way the ‘Cats can now match it in the front court is if Cooke and Brandt stand up. Both have shown signs they can do it throughout the season, but not on a consistent basis and Gleeson is quickly losing patience.
“They didn’t have a good game did they. Gus got some good looks early and they just rolled out and DC’s energy and consistency is what we are looking at from him,” Gleeson said.
“We need those guys firing without a question. From our four bigs we need to get something there or alternatively change it up. We need to get some productivity out of our bigs.”
Meanwhile, Gaze had plenty of reasons to be delighted with the effort of the Kings to beat the Wildcats on Friday night.
He was especially happy with the first half defensive effort to hold Perth to 27 points, but wasn’t as happy to give up 50 in the second half.
However, the positives were plain to see and there was great excitement from seeing the star-studded back court in action with Randle (19 points, five rebounds), Lisch (13 points, four assists) and Jason Cadee (14 points) all playing well.
Youngster Dane Pineau had the best game of his career with 11 points and four rebounds while Perry Ellis stood up with 13 points and ten boards.
While the second half defensive effort was stuck in his craw, Gaze was delighted the players got to enjoy such a significant victory.
“We have to do better than we did in the second half. If we hold any team in the league to 27 points in a half, we win every single game. That’s not going to happen, but if we can apply the same things and get Brad coming back in after the birth of his baby boy then I feel like we can perform well,” Gaze said.
“But to win a game like this is a great feeling and I’m really happy for the players. I keep complimenting the work they are doing in the practice environment and we’ve seen really good progress over the last three or four weeks even though we haven’t got the reward.
“Defensively our numbers would indicate that we are poor, but it’s not because we’re not trying. We are applying the rules and working at it, and it looked a whole lot better for most of this game.
“But for me as a coach, and you don’t want to focus on the negatives and in our situation you have to rejoice every winning moment, but when you think of the bigger picture and what we are trying to do, 50 points is too many.
“But the feeling for me is reward for the players and to see them excited, and get reward for effort is a great thing. Hopefully this is a long journey we are all on and it’s about understanding that these games we are playing are just as much about our character, our determination, our competitive spirit and brotherhood.”
Randle fought bravely to play 32 minutes on Friday night despite his adductor injury leaving Gaze unsure if he’ll be able to back it up on Sunday at home.
“I don’t know about Jerome. He is sore but he is a warrior though. I asked him and he just tells me ‘I’ll be right coach, I’ll be there coach.’ But it’s adductor thing he’s dealing with,” Gaze said.
“Like we have done all year we will just deal with whatever we are dealt. We do have Kevin, though, and we’ll have to talk to the physios that he’ll need to play more than 20 or 25 minutes.”
NBL ROUND 15 FIXTURES (AEDT)
New Zealand Breakers 98 defeated Melbourne United 81
Adelaide 36ers 112 defeated Illawarra Hawks 90
Perth Wildcats 77 lost to Sydney Kings 84
Brisbane Bullets 98 lost to Melbourne United 105
Cairns Taipans 81 defeated New Zealand Breakers 71
Sydney Kings v Perth Wildcats – Qudos Bank Arena 3pm
Illawarra Hawks v Adelaide 36ers – WIN Entertainment Centre 5pm