The Perth Wildcats began their quest for a third successive NBL title with a workmanlike 96-86 win over the Brisbane Bullets at Perth Arena on Saturday night.
It was a tough ask for the Bullets, who finished last season on bottom of the ladder.
But against the reigning champs, in front of the biggest crowd for an NBL season-opener in Perth (13,403), they were far from disgraced.
For most of the contest, Travis Trice (23 points), Daniel Kickert (16) and newcomer Perrin Buford (17 and five rebounds) reminded the Cats that the 2016/17 season was long gone.
But with Bryce Cotton showing no sign of suffering from a championship hangover, there was enough in the Cats performance to suggest they’ll be right in the mix again.
Cotton scored 45 points the previous time he was on an NBL court, in game three of last year’s Championship play-off against Illawarra.
Although it took him almost eight minutes to get on the scoreboard against the Bullets on Saturday night, once he did, there was little Brisbane could do to stop him and the Cats. He scored 11 points in the second term and finished the game with 24 and three assists.
Cotton finished the opening half with 17 points, 12 of them from long range.
Perth led 49-39 at the main break courtesy of Jean-Pierre Tokoto, who nailed his first NBL points, another three-pointer, at the same time as the buzzer sounded.
At half-time, the Cats unfurled their eighth NBL championship banner.
But again it was Brisbane who came out firing after the restart, on the back of Kickert’s efforts. They managed to reduce the margin back to four.
But a successful half-court shot from Cats veteran Greg Hire right on the three-quarter-time buzzer extended the margin back to nine points.
The challenge was blown out of the Bullets by another Wildcats veteran, Jesse Wagstaff, at the start of the final term, when he nailed nine points in just more than a minute.
Perth coach Trevor Gleeson was happy with the contribution from his entire squad, but acknowledged that there was a lot of work to do.
“It was a good game for us. I don’t think we played particularly well, but it was a really good hard game for us first up,” he said.
“We have a lot of areas to tidy up, especially on the defensive end.”
Despite the loss. Brisbane coach Andrej Lemanis says that there were a lot of positives to take from the game.
“It was a seven point game just before half-time,” Lemanis said.
“Stephen Holt misses a little bunny tip in and they come down and stick a three-ball in right on half-time, which take it to 10.
“And that one that three-quarter-time. We were six down, Trav drives to the rim, misses a lay-up. It should have been four and then they throw it the length of the court.
“There are a lots of positives to take from that game.”