If a road team is to win in this NBL grand final series it appears Sunday’s Game 4 is the chance for the Perth Wildcats, but Melbourne United is confident of bouncing back without some of the obstacles they feel come in Perth.
The Perth Wildcats might have finished the regular season on top of the NBL and might be the league’s powerhouse, but they deservedly go into the finals starting on Thursday with a chip on their shoulder.
The Wildcats finished the NBL regular season as the form team winning six of their last seven games having also started on fire winning 10 of their first 11.
They had a tough patch in between, but their dominant start gave them some breathing room and then they got back on track impressively. They finished on top at 18-10 to earn home court advantage right through the playoffs starting in the semi finals against the Brisbane Bullets.
Not that you need that much more added motivation with a championship at stake. But the Wildcats deserves to feel somewhat slighted at the NBL Awards last Sunday night especially the lack of recognition for coach Trevor Gleeson and reigning MVP Bryce Cotton.
The Wildcats did have two players – Cotton and Nick Kay – feature in the All-NBL First Team but for Cotton to not win a second MVP award and Gleeson to not even be top three in the coaching award were the big surprises.
The voting system certainly leaves itself open to emotions and personalities taking over with the league taking votes from coaches and captains to determine the winners of the major awards.
For Perth forward Kay, he feels the Wildcats can use the feelings of Gleeson and Cotton being overlooked as added motivation now.
“It would have been good for both of them to be given those big awards, but I think it just gives us a point to prove to come out and play our style, and play the best we can,” Kay said.
“If we end up with the trophy at the end of the season I think the point is proven.”
What is easy to deduce from the awards is that Gleeson might not be that popular among the rest of the league. But what can’t be ignored is his performance this season with the Wildcats and ever since he took over back ahead of the 2013-14 season.
Having already built a strong resume at the Townsville Crocodiles and Melbourne Tigers, Gleeson arrived in Perth with big shoes to fill taking over a team that had played in three of the previous four Grand Finals.
But he is now the Wildcats’ most successful coach with three championships to his name but never has been Coach of the Year, with his only award coming as coach of the Crocs in 2010-11.
There is a strong case to make that his performance as coach this season with the ‘Cats is the best of Gleeson’s career. To start with they have made the decision to go all the way through with just the one import.
Then there has been injuries along the way with Damian Martin missing six games, Mitch Norton five, Terrico White four, Bryce Cotton three and Angus Brandt three.
Only Nick Kay, Greg Hire, Clint Steindl and Rhys Vague played all 28 games so there was always either players missing or coming back from injury for Gleeson to factor into his rotations.
Things were all going smoothly after 11 games with Perth 10-1 but by January 17, the Wildcats had lost eight of ten games – including seven of the last eight – and missing the playoffs was a distinct possibility unless they turned things around quickly.
Despite the urging from the outside, the Wildcats weren’t forced into a personnel change. Instead they showed faith in what they had, Gleeson made some tinkering to the game plan and rotations, and the result was six straight wins to secure the regular season championship.
That is a coaching performance that deserves recognition. Remarkably in the Coach of the Year voting, Gleeson didn’t even feature in the top three that was made up of Melbourne’s Dean Vickerman, Illawarra’s Rob Beveridge and Sydney’s Andrew Gaze.
Gleeson himself won’t be too worried about the lack of recognition or whether he’s popular or not with his colleagues. Results speak for themselves and winning his fourth championship will do that for him over the next month.
Cotton wasn’t shy on sticking up for his coach though.
“When you’re in first place for nine or 10 weeks of the season and you have a two or three-week slump and then find a way to get back on top and finish there, and you go through all the scrutiny of needing more imports and you need to do this and that, he still stuck to his guns and believed in us,” Cotton said.
“We ended up proving him right finishing on top of the ladder and we’re not talking about necessarily winning the award, we’re just talking about him being nominated. It’s interesting but not that surprising.”
Then there is MVP voting. It’s not quite as a clear a snub that Cotton didn’t win as it was for Gleeson to not be anywhere near winning Coach of the Year. But it was still somewhat a surprise that the top positions went to Sydney’s Andrew Bogut and Melbourne’s Casper Ware.
It’s not as if Bogut wasn’t a deserving MVP winner either. If you value a player on making his team better, you can’t argue with what Bogut has done for the Kings.
Through his sheer presence, direction and leadership, the Kings have turned themselves into an outstanding defensive team and Bogut’s numbers, production and everything else he provides that goes unmeasured means you can’t say he didn’t deserve the MVP honour.
But you can’t blame Cotton for feeling a little slighted to not win and to finish third in the votes cast by the coaches and players across the league.
When Cotton is rolling, he is the only truly unstoppable player in the league and he showed that in the run home as the Wildcats secured top spot.
He hit 24 points in the fourth quarter and overtime in a crucial win against the Kings and then hit 24 second-half points against Adelaide in a game that secured that top spot.
But more than that, Cotton’s numbers grew to 23.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists from 19.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists last year when he did win the league’s MVP award.
Again, Cotton will use that to spur him on even more during the finals rather than complain.
“I’m not really worried about the MVP. It was still a good night to just get your mind off of basketball and take a look back on all the ups and downs of the season,” Cotton said.
“I’d say I had a better season though than last year and on top of that my team is doing better as well. This is the first time that we’ve finished first since I’ve been here so we have made a lot of improvements. Hopefully we can carry that on into the playoffs.”
NBL semi-final fixtures (AEDT)
PERTH WILDCATS (1) v BRISBANE BULLETS (4)
Thursday February 28 – RAC Arena 10:20pm
Saturday March 2 – Brisbane Entertainment Centre 2:50pm
GAME 3 (if required)
Monday March 4 – RAC Arena 9:50pm
MELBOURNE UNITED (2) v SYDNEY KINGS (3)
Thursday February 28 – Melbourne Arena 7:50pm
Sunday March 3 – Qudos Bank Arena 2:20pm
GAME 3 (if required)
Tuesday March 5 – Melbourne Arena 7:50pm