Bryce Cotton delivered one of the finest individual performances the NBL has ever seen on Sunday afternoon, firing the Perth Wildcats to their second consecutive championship.
The season-saving import scored 45 points – the most ever by an NBL player in a Grand Final game – as the Wildcats put the finishing touches on a Grand Final sweep of the gallant Illawarra Hawks.
Cotton’s outburst, which followed strong efforts in Games 1 and 2, earned him the Larry Sengstock Medal as the Most Valuable Player of the Grand Final Series.
It was a performance that will not soon be forgotten; a spectacular exhibition of basketball brilliance.
Opening his scoring account midway through the first quarter, Cotton drove coast-to-coast before drilling a contested pull-up three to put the ‘Cats up 15.
He was heating up, you could sense it, and the extra attention resulted in a catch-and-shoot four-point play early in the second.
The next trip up the floor Cotton slapped another three, before drilling yet another the very next possession, audaciously pulling the trigger in Kevin White’s grill.
From there things just got silly; step-backs, fadeaways, crossovers … the entire arsenal on display from a man operating at the peak of his powers.
Big day for Bryce.
— NBL (@NBL) March 5, 2017
“That performance was as good as you’ll ever see. What an amazing player he is,” Illawarra head coach Rob Beveridge said postgame.
“Some of the shots he made… we were double-teaming him, chasing him, switching on him… he was just making huge plays.
“He’s one of the quickest, most athletic, dynamic players that I’ve gone up against and tonight he showed that he is an NBA player. He’s right there.”
Remarkably, Cotton’s 45 points came on just 17 shots, making him the first player in NBL history to score that many points on so few field goal attempts, per @NBLfacts.
“It was very special,” Wildcats captain Damian Martin said.
“There were times when you’d give Bryce the ball and almost be a spectator even though you’re on the court. Some of the possessions he came up with – the shots he made – were just out of this league.
“It was just spectacular to watch and a privilege to be a part of. And to do it at the stage he did was just amazing. That’s why I think it goes down as the most special performance I’ve been a part of from an individual.”
When Cotton arrived in Australia in early January, the defending champs had a losing record and faced an uphill battle to qualify for the Finals. Later that month, after several impressive performances, Cotton turned down a ten-day contract offer from the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, committing to Perth until the end of the season.
“Tonight he gave us 45 reasons why we’re very glad he stuck around,” Martin said.
Truth is, there’s every chance we’ll see Cotton back in the NBA sooner rather than later. He has previously spent time with the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies and the 24-year-old is expected to return to the United States shortly to explore opportunities for the final month of the current NBA season.
As much as they’d love to keep him, the ‘Cats believe Cotton will be moving onwards and upwards next season.
“I think his place is in the NBA,” head coach Trevor Gleeson said postgame.
“I think he’s a Patty Mills kind of player who can come off the bench and provide energy. He can shoot and provides another ball-handler. I’d be surprised if there weren’t a couple of knocks on the door real soon.”
Gleeson described Cotton’s decision to stick with the Wildcats as perhaps the key moment in Perth’s championship campaign.
“Sometimes you get players who are that good, they’re so engrossed in themselves. Bryce is the ultimate unselfish guy,” Gleeson said.
“The unselfishness to say ‘no, I want to stay here and play out the season’ and not go to the NBA on a ten-day contract, that’s one of the most selfless things I’ve ever seen.
“That just went through the team that he was prepared to do that for us. That’s what the culture here at the Wildcats is and we’re so proud of him to come out and have a game like that today.
“We’d love to have him back, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think he’s going to be back.”
With his 27.6 ppg (the highest 3 game Grand Final average in 20 years) Cotton was the obvious choice for the Larry Sengstock Finals MVP 🎖 pic.twitter.com/sgVz50OKMB
— NBL (@NBL) March 5, 2017
Cotton finished the Grand Final Series averaging 27.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from long range.
He becomes the eighth Perth Wildcats player to be named Grand Final MVP, joining Ricky Grace (1990, 1993), Pete Hansen (1991), Andrew Vlahov (1995), Marcus Timmons (2000), Kevin Lisch (2010), Jermaine Beal (2014) and Damian Martin (2016).
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Cotton told NBL TV postgame.
“Just to be a part of such a tremendous organisation and all the ups and downs we had, this is top of the list.”
“My teammates did a great job finding me and we did a hell of a job tonight on both ends of the floor.”
They also did a great job getting around him, the Wildcats showering Cotton with love as NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger announced him as the Larry Sengstock Medallist.
They adore him, as do the Red Army. But like most summer romances, Cotton’s time here is (most likely) fleeting.
The memories, however, will last forever.
Written for NBL.com.au by Liam Santamaria