Liam Santamaria’s five takeaways from Game 1 of the NBL Grand Final


Five thoughts on Perth’s 88-86 win over Sydney in Game 1 of the Hungry Jacks NBL Grand Final Series presented by MG from NBL Media’s Liam Santamaria.


On the opening play of the NBL20 Grand Final Series, Perth superstar Bryce Cotton received a hand-off from Miles Plumlee, took one dribble and drained an uncontested mid-range pull-up.

As Cotton rose up for that jumper, Plumlee’s man, Andrew Bogut, was executing Sydney’s ‘drops’ coverage; keeping two feet in the paint to prevent any kind of foray to the basket.

It’s the scheme that has served as the pillar of Sydney’s defensive structure throughout NBL20 and which Cotton has famously torched all year.

The MVP continued to get those looks throughout the first half of Game 1 and he continued to make the Kings pay, scoring 18 points on 50 per cent shooting from the field.

When asked about Cotton’s hot start at half-time, Trevor Gleeson was forthright in his response.

“They’re continuing to drop so we’ll keep going at it,” the Perth coach said.

That, of course, is exactly what they did. And when all was said and done, Cotton had a game-high 32 points (on 50 per cent shooting) and the Wildcats claimed a 1-0 series lead.

“Over the course of the series we’ll find out if he can keep that effort up,” Kings coach Will Weaver said.

“He certainly is playing his butt off, as MVPs tend to do.”

The big question for Sydney now is not ‘will they make adjustments to Cotton’s coverages?’

They have to, at least to some extent. I mean, the man is still averaging 33 a game against them this season and they just gave up home court advantage in the series. It’s now a matter of whatthe Kings change and how much they change it.

“Are we going to change anything? Sure,” Weaver said.

“But I wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water at this stage because we were in a position down the stretch where you feel really good about your chances if just a couple of things bounce your way.”


As well as slowing Cotton down, the Kings need to find a way to get Casper Ware going.

Sydney’s superstar point guard was tremendous defensively (he just needs more help) but scored just five points on 1/14 shooting – his lowest ever score in an NBL game. In the process, Ware went 0/10 from long range, setting a new all-time record for the most three-point attempts in an NBL Grand Final game without a make.

What’s interesting is that the Wildcats are actually using coverages against Ware that are almost exactly the same as what the Kings are applying to Cotton.

Miles Plumlee showed aggressively on Ware’s first dribble hand-off but from there, Casper saw deep-drop after deep-drop as he worked off ball-screens throughout the game. He just wasn’t able to consistently make plays or shots out of those actions.

One issue seemed to be his unwillingness to attack inside the arc.

Take this play, for example, where Casper ignored the mid-range space in front of him and pulled up at the arc, only to flick it back to Bogut due to Cotton’s excellent rear contest.

Personally, I think Ware would benefit from being more aggressive towards the rim in this situations.

To explain why, let’s go back to Game 1 of the 2018 semi finals between Melbourne and New Zealand. On that night the Breakers guarded the one-five pick-and-roll with flat shows – a similar coverage to that which Casper faced last night. It was a scheme that Ware, who led United to victory with 33 points, picked apart with lightning-quick pull-ups and feathery floaters.

Following that game, Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman remarked that Casper “had a good advantage coming off on-balls” because the Breakers “were sitting pretty deep on him.”

Yoooo! That’s what the Wildcats are doing! But instead of playing in attack mode and getting two-feet in the paint, Ware is pulling up for triples (with his defender contesting from behind) and going 0/10 from downtown!

Casper has struggled with his shot right throughout the 2019/20 season but has, at times, overcome those issues with aggressive play towards the rim. He needs to return to that approach right now.


Of the several defensive adjustments the Kings made during Game 1, the one which had arguably the biggest impact was matching a ‘big’ up on Damian Martin.

Will Weaver played Xavier Cooks on Martin for a few minutes in each of the opening quarters but where this strategy really played dividends was in the third term against Perth’s small-ball line-up.

Midway through that period the Kings put Bogut and then Kickert on Martin and had that man sit right in the middle of the paint as an extra help defender. Cooks and Louzada matched-up on Kay and Wagstaff and the scheme completely bamboozled the Wildcats, resulting in some seriously ugly possessions like this one.

Sydney got six stops across Perth’s next seven possessions and the home team’s lead ballooned out to double-figures.

The move forced Trevor Gleeson to yank Martin out of the game, resulting in a much more potent offensive line-up of Cotton-Steindl-White-Wagstaff-Kay. It was a counter-move that paid immediate dividends for Perth with Steindl and White each draining triples to cut the margin to five at three quarter-time.

When Martin re-entered the game midway through the fourth the Kings attempted to adopt the same strategy but arguably made a crucial error in terms of their match-ups. Instead of aligning Kickert back on Martin, the Kings placed Cooks on the Perth point guard and left Kickert to guard Plumlee. The result? More drops coverage on Cotton-Plumlee pick-and-rolls and a momentum-shifting Cotton triple on the very next play.

With his confidence flowing, the MVP then drilled a ridiculous step-back three moments later that fired the ‘Cats into the lead.


Speaking of Martin, the corner-three he knocked down in crunch time was absolutely enormous.

With three and a half minutes remaining, the scores tied and the shot clock winding down, Cotton drew Martin’s defender into the paint and kicked it out to the five-time champ.

Martin set his feet and let that thing fly.

The Wildcats captain had not hit a three-point field goal in any of his previous nine games. In fact, having sat out all of January due to injury, the last shot Martin had knocked down from beyond the arc in an NBL game was all the way back in mid-December!

Yet, in that gigantic moment, the champ came through with the goods.

“His corner is his three-point shot,” Gleeson commented postgame.

“Bryce made the pass straight out for an uncontested three-point shot and he shoots hundreds of those during the week. It was a big play for us.”


Despite all of that, the Kings still had some great opportunities to win or extend that game down the stretch.

Down three with just under a minute remaining Daniel Kickert – the best three-point shooter in the league – missed a wide open look from the arc.

Then, with 17 seconds remaining and the ‘Cats leading by 2, Ware found Shaun Bruce in the corner for an open triple that would’ve put the Kings in front. Bruce had drained a trio of three-balls earlier in the game but back-rimmed his attempt in that huge moment.

To be honest, I found it curious that Kevin Lisch wasn’t in the game for that potential game-winning possession. The two-time MVP had put 17 on the board on 4/6 shooting from long range and, as a Larry Sengstock Medallist, is a guy who is no stranger to the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Grand Final games. That opportunity came from an offensive rebound off a missed free throw but still… surely Weaver has faith in Lisch for end-of-game defensive possessions. Doesn’t he?

At the end of the day, Lisch wasn’t out there and Bruce was the man who was gifted that look.

Finally, after White missed a pair of free throws that would’ve iced the game, the Kings were given a golden opportunity to either win or force OT and, once again, they could not cash in. Instead of putting the afterburners on and attacking Wagstaff off the dribble, Tate pulled-up and handed-off to Ware who rose up and launched a contested three with 4 seconds on the clock.

It missed and the Wildcats drew first blood in the series.

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