Sydney owner Paul Smith poured fuel on the flame ahead of the NBL’s controversial Grand Final rematch.
And — for more than a moment — it looked like his undermanned Kings squad would back him up against bitter rival Perth, especially with a sick Bryce Cotton.
That was until new Wildcats import John Mooney took the game into his own hands — and then Cotton exploded in arguably the best NBL game of the new season.
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It’s been 345 days since the pandemic forced the NBL to cancel the fourth and fifth games of last year’s Grand Final, awarding the Wildcats the trophy over the Kings by virtue of their 2-1 lead.
Mooney didn’t play in that game, but he was clearly worded up about the history between these two clubs — and took it personally, demolishing the Kings in putting together one of the gaudiest statlines in the 40-minute NBL-era.
Without injured import Jarell Martin, star point guard Casper Ware poured in 34 points, while, at the other end, the Kings sent two guys at the soon-to-be naturalised Cotton at every chance they got.
But, not even a knock to the knee could stop Notre Dame product Mooney as he showed his inside-outside game, draining a number of silky deep jumpers, mixed in with some muscle under the hoop.
When all was said and done, the 23-year-old finished with 30 points, 16 rebounds and 3 assists, and Cotton lit it up late with 30pts and 9ast, guiding Perth to a 113-106 victory in what was a great advertisement for everything good about the NBL.
Perth coach Trevor Gleeson said Cotton didn’t get the greenlight to play until an hour-and-a-half before the game.
“It’s easy to play when Bryce Cotton, he gains so much attention, he throws it back, I’m wide open, it’s easy,” Mooney said on the ESPN broadcast after the game.
“He’s the best player in the league. He showed that tonight. He’s been sick, but that just shows his toughness and grit. He’s a great player.”
Sydney coach Adam Forde lamented the Kings’ third-quarter combustion, where they were outscored 32-17, effectively killing their chances.
The Kings had got themselves in early foul trouble and had 24 fouls called against them for the game.
Forde said that made his side “very tentative and soft”.
“We sort of backed off a little bit,” Forde said.
“Our rotations off the ball were softer because everybody was fearful of fouling.
“That’s definitely on us to be able to not get rattled by what the calls are and move onto the next thing.
“It’s definitely a learning point for us. We’re still relatively new coming together and finding out what our strengths and weaknesses are.
“That third quarter we definitely have to take some teaching points.”
There was plenty of feeling in this clash, the two teams involved in a number of verbal and physical stoushes.
Daniel Kickert and Mooney jawed after the American import skied over the veteran big man and threw down a thunderous two-handed put-back jam off of a Luke Travers miss.
The stars collided at the start of the last quarter when Cotton and Ware traded buckets — and words. The King cut through the lane for two, then Cotton, in the face of intense defence from Ware, rose up to drill a ridiculous three-pointer, before Ware made another lay-up at the other end, the pair yapping at each other all the way through.
Blanchfield, Ware and Kickert then came together in a physical stoush as the former attempted to fight through a screen, which resulted in Ware arguing with the refs — and Mooney.
THE JEDI MASTER AND THE PADUWAN
Forde spent eight seasons learning his craft under Perth master Gleeson.
And he threw everything at his mentor, to no avail.
The younger coach was hot under the collar in the second quarter over a stretch of five fouls called on the Kings in the space of 47 seconds, the referees slapping him with a technical foul.
But he had the last laugh when his coach’s challenge — a new introduction to the NBL Cup — of the fifth foul was upheld.
“Who would have thought, huh? Who would have thought,” the coach barked, prompting a talking to from referee Chris Reid.
“There’s no need to react like you are now,” Reid admonished a bemused Forde.
He’s had an interrupted season with lower back tightness and then a wrecked ankle, making it difficult for him to get settled, but Didi Louzada produced his best performance of the 2021 season.
The Brazilian ace powered the Kings with 19 points off the bench, 15 of those coming from down town.
A pair of highlight reel finishes in the lane in the second quarter underlined why some believe he is destined for the NBA.
Forde said he was pleased to see Louzada “get a little bit of his swag and his bounce back”.
“He was due that one,” he said.
“Didi out there smiling on the court is a very good basketball player, so hopefully we can continue that momentum.
“He’s matured so much off the court, his English is great, his spirit and the energy and fight that he brings to the group.”
Rookie of the year fancy Dejan Vasiljevic continued his solid start to the season, his 13 points making him the first rookie in Sydney Kings history to score double figures in their opening nine games.