20/04/2024

Likely number one NBA draft pick Alex Starr will be called upon to deliver important production for the Perth Wildcats. (Image: Perth Wildcats Twitter)

It’s a three-game semifinal series with all the elements to go the distance.

When the Perth Wildcats and the Tasmania JackJumpers meet in game one at RAC Arena on Friday night, both teams will fight for every possession like there’s no tomorrow.

In three regular-season matchups, Perth won two.

Both victories came on their home floor 101-95 on September 29 and 89-88 on December 15 in an epic that went down to the game’s final possession.

In the third encounter (February 17), the JackJumpers got one back in the Apple Isle, winning 86-72, with Wildcats superstar Bryce Cotton not playing due to rest.

In a series where capitalising on moments is significant, there looms a glaring area the JackJumpers can exploit the Wildcats, and that’s in the rebounding department.

In all three contests, Tasmania comprehensively battered Perth on the boards, winning the rebounding count by plus 27.

It wasn’t only the expansive differential in rebounding heavily favouring the JackJumpers, but offensive rebounding leading to second-chance opportunities.

Tasmania secured 16 offensive rebounds, generating 21 second-chance points in the first encounter.

In the second meeting, it pulled down an enormous 23 offensive rebounds, leading to 23 second-chance points, and the third matchup saw them collect 11 offensive rebounds, translating to 11 second-chance points.

For the best part of three seasons, rebounding has been the Wildcats’ Achilles heel.

NBL play-by-play broadcaster Jack Heverin told The Inner Sanctum it’s “hugely important” for the Wildcats to combat the JackJumpers’ elite rebounding.

“They have had some games this season (the Wildcats) where their rebounding has been pretty ordinary and it’s certainly had a say in the result,” Heverin said.

“All the talk about the Illawarra game in that (final) round where they allowed 20 offensive rebounds.

“And then they come up against a Tasmanian team, who has the best rebounding percentage in the competition.

“So this is such a huge factor for the Perth Wildcats because rebounding is intent a lot of the time. And there’s a bit of statement for the way that you’re playing, and when Perth rebounds, they win.

“When they don’t rebound or when they draw level on the rebound count, they don’t always win. So it’s massive for them.”

Leading the JackJumpers rebounding charge is the energetic Will Magnay.

The elite rim-protector was the difference in Tasmania booking a semifinal series ticket.

Coming on for Marcus Lee, who hurt his left shoulder in the game’s opening 22 seconds, he finished with his fifth double-double of the season, 25 points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes.

Magnay didn’t play in the side’s first matchup due to a foot injury.

However, he was highly productive in the two matchups, averaging 15 points, nine rebounds, and 4.5 blocks.

Although he is the barometer for supplying second-chance opportunities through his clinical rebounding, the JackJumpers have several players who crash the offensive glass, including Marcus Lee, Jack McVeigh, and even the league’s diminutive player, Jordon Crawford.

Combating the JackJumpers’ methodical and fluent ball movement in touching the paint to start their drive and kick game is an area the Wildcats have to watch out for.

It was evident in the play-in victory over the Illawarra Hawks, shooting 50 per cent overall for the game and hitting 40.9 per cent from distance (9 of 22).

Many of Tasmania’s open looks started from smooth operator Milton Doyle.

Doyle didn’t have his best shooting game, going two of 11 overall and missing all four threes, finishing with five points. However, his facilitating was instrumental in slicing apart Ilawarra’s defensive schemes, finishing with a game-high 10 assists.

“He (Doyle) was able to get into the paint and kick, kick, kick. And the Tasmanian shooting numbers are great. Clint Steindl and Sean Macdonald are number one and two in the competition for three-point shooting percentages,” Heverin said.

“McVeigh’s percentage is great. Crawford’s percentage is solid. Doyle’s percentage is solid. And, of course, we shouldn’t forget about Anthony Drmic.

“So they’ve got guys lined up on the perimeter to knock down the three balls.

“It’s been one of the ongoing themes for Perth across the season is its rebounding count and its ability to defend.

“Now, early in the season, when things were shaky, they were having all sorts of trouble defending.

“They made some serious adjustments and got a lot better at that end of the floor. But it’s going to require a full team effort to defend because Tasmania will just meticulously pick you apart otherwise.”

More Basketball News

Over the season’s course, opposition teams have devised a strategy of leaving Tai Webster open from the perimeter.

Although only shooting 29.3 per cent from long-range in NBL24, the 28-year-old is a career 35.5 per cent on threes.

The South East Melbourne Phoenix deployed this tactic when they faced the Wildcats on January 13.

Heverin believes JackJumpers coach Scott Roth won’t implement a zone to entice Webster to shoot wide-open threes, instead playing their man-to-man defence.

“They are very up and in. They don’t want to take chances on those sorts of things,” Heverin said.

“But I think, will they live with Tai Webster having the last shot on the offence? Absolutely.

“Their primary focus, obviously is going to be Bryce Cotton and getting the ball out of his hands or trapping him in the corner, not allowing him to beat you off the dribble.

“So if that means Bryce Cotton is going to get the ball out of his hands to give the ball up, and someone like Tai Webster is taking the last shot, then I think they’ll be okay with it.”

When Will Magnay came onto the court against Illawarra, no one could contain him.

His two-man game with Doyle was poetry in motion.

There were roughly five or six plays involving the duo, where Magnay would set the screen before rolling to the rim for a layup or receiving alley-oop feeds.

It’s a lethal component the duo has built in NBL24 and it will test out Perth’s frontline big men Keanu Pinder and Alex Sarr.

“I think you’ve got to be right up on Will Magnay,” Heverin said about how the Wildcats should defend the JackJumpers marquee big.

“If you allow him to have a running start and pick and roll to the basket, he’s so athletic and he’s so intelligent and Tasmania offensively are so intelligent as well with the space that they give him and the looks that they give him.

“Otherwise, foul trouble comes, and Will Magnay gets off to a hot start. Just ask Illawarra what happened.”

Heverin doesn’t take much away from the third matchup because of Cotton’s absence.

The four-time MVP averaged 24.5 points, six rebounds, five assists, and 2.5 steals on 41.2 per cent shooting and 33.3 per cent from three in two outings against Tasmania this season.

Pinder averaged 13 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.3 steals on 53 per cent shooting against the Jack Jumpers in the regular season.

However, for the Wildcats to edge closer towards a league-record 11th championship, Heverin says it can’t be all on Cotton’s majestical offence to carry the load and Pinder’s energy.

“Who else comes with Bryce Cotton and Keanu Pinder? Is this an Alex Sarr, is it Jesse Wagstaff off the bench, or is it Tai Webster?” he said.

“You can’t win playoff games getting small contributions from elsewhere. They’re going to need one or two others to come with them.

“So if they dry up in that situation (offensively), they can do a lot worse than feed the ball down to Pinder and or Alex Sarr if he’s on the same time.

“If they find themselves in a situation where they’re not scoring first, I don’t think that bombing away is the best because it hasn’t worked for them this season.

If there is an X-Factor in Perth’s chances of progressing into a 10th Grand Final series in the last 15 seasons, Jordan Usher looms as a sparkplug piece.

In his maiden Wildcats debut, the all-out Usher dazzled the Red Army, scoring a season-high 35 points, coincidentally against the JackJumpers – the most points on debut by a Wildcat.

He’s faced adversity this season, being demoted from the starting lineup and onto the bench.

But through the adversity, he’s found his role as the Wildcats’ sixth man, consistently bringing energy to the second unit.

Usher finished the teams’ December 15 meeting on the court, which the Wildcats snuck home.

Heverin sees the 25-year-old finishing games for coach John Rillie.

“Jordan Usher off the bench has been fantastic for the Perth Wildcats,” he said.

“I think that sometimes when you get caught in his trap, a little bit of coming off the bench and all that sort of thing. It’s really about who’s there at the back end of the game.

“I think at the back end of the game, you’re likely to see Jordan Usher there because when the game’s there to be won, Jordan Usher’s a scoring threat.

“Come the business end of games, unless there’s foul trouble, I do see Jordan Usher being out there.”

In a matchup with immense talent on both teams, Heverin predicts the JackJumpers will win in a third and deciding game to book a second Grand Final series appearance in their three-year inception.

“I think Tasmania win this series,” he said.

“I think you can argue that Tasmania is playing the best basketball of anyone in the competition right now. And they’ve played all the way through. They haven’t had a break.

“I think the break would have hurt them. I see Tasmania winning. But I see Perth winning on Friday night.

“So I see Tasmania winning the last two games of that series to go through to the championship.”

About Author