For the first time in his history, Australia have moved into the knockout stage of an international competition undefeated.
France was always going to be a litmus test of Australia’s ultimate potential. After a gutsy win against a grinding Lithuania, Les Bleus were set to give the Boomers a different shade of suffering with their length, athleticism and creativity off the bounce. Stacked against a roster replete with NBA talent, if the Boomers were to win, they had to execute to perfection – the margin for error was that slim.
On the back of their NBA superstars in Joe Ingles, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes – and Matthew Dellavedova’s huge free throws late – the Boomers somehow managed to thread the needle. Topping Group L, the Boomers' heroic two-point win (100-98) proved they were not only up for their greatest task, but cemented their place as heavyweights in the FIBA 2019 World Cup.
1. Down Low
When Aron Baynes is hitting 3s and Andrew Bogut is flicking off crisp assists, Australia’s offence is a thing of beauty. When they’re not, Australia’s system often feels rudimentary.
France had a game plan tonight to get Australia out of their rhythm – stationing Rudy Gobert under the rim and daring Australia to beat them from the outside. For much of the first half, the French staggered Gobert and Vincent Poirier’s minutes according to Australia’s frontline, using Gobert’s length to deter to Bogut as a passer. The game was tied at the half. An arm wrestle through and through.
At 7’1 and with a 7’7 wingspan, Gobert immediately made his presence felt – blocking Jock Landale early and altering countless other attempts. Coming into the game averaging 2.3 blocks per, Gobert was fully aware that the Australians would attempt to challenge him at the rim – Baynes even comically tried to dunk on the French behemoth late in the 2nd quarter. With 8 points and 6 assists, Gobert stamped a giant hand upon the game until fouling out late.
However, Aron Baynes, for one, was never going to let the giant Frenchman intimidate him. Fully prepared to bang bodies and crush skulls, the big man took the French’s dare to shoot and double downed, connecting on five of his six shots from beyond the arc.
How Australia would fare against the oppressive presence of France’s massive frontline was always going to define this game. Australia run so much of their offence through the high post – often dragging opposing big men out to the perimeter – and the Boomers’ ability to leverage the passing, shooting and screening ability of their bigs into easy baskets had been paramount throughout the tournament. With Baynes stretching the court, the Boomers scored 38 points in the paint and shot 13/27 from three overall (48%).
More than that, the big man drawing three momentum-changing charges in the second half --including one that denied Gobert of a dunk attempt-- proved to be the defining stat between the battle of the bigs.
2. Perimeter Play
The front-court conflict was always going to come down to how the Boomers could match up against the likes of Nicolas Batum, Nando De Colo and Evan Fournier – quick, lithe player types that have given the Australian’s headaches all tournament. Coming into the game, France’s devastating 1-2 punch of De Colo and Fournier were averaging a combined 28.6 points per contest. Tonight, the due had 57 between them.
With six French players averaging better than 45% from deep, Australia knew it had to be fast in running guards off the three-point line. Honing in on taking the 3 ball away, the Boomers again turned to their conservative drop strategy in the pick and roll – a coverage that gives up mid-range opportunities in lieu of defensive collapses. While the strategy makes some sense, watching Fournier rise up for floaters again and again along the foul-line felt like a bad case of deja-vu.
Criticizing the Boomers ‘drop’ strategy is fair, but the harsh reality is that the Boomers lacked the athleticism, length and quickness on the wings to aptly contain dribble penetration from France’s rangy guards. Matthew Dellavedova fought hard throughout, only to watch repeatedly as the 6’7 Orlanda Magic star simply shot over the top of his outstretched hands.
Regardless, the Boomers got the stops when it mattered most. Switching the longer Ingles onto Fournier provided dividends, and Mills (the great Australian Hope) managed to steal an inbounds late to seal the win.
The Boomers came into the tournament with a stubborn plan – restrict and contest opposing teams’ three-point opportunities. In a game that was decided by under three points, the Australians limited the French to three less triples than their average output (7/17).
I guess this is what coaches mean, when they say they’ll ‘live or die by the 3 ball’.
3. Good D, Better O
Against the Dominican Republic, the Boomers assisted on all 30 of their made baskets – a ridiculous stat, really. Coming into tonight’s matchup they were averaging almost 26 assists per game. They had 25 again tonight.
However, for every virtue there is a vice, and this same selflessness came back to haunt the Boomers as turnovers on more than one occasion. Using their length, the French pickpocketed the Boomers on several key possessions late in the fourth. Coughing up 14 turnovers, Australia’s self-sabotaging ways seemed like it would rear its ugly head once again, the France scoring a mammoth 26 points off the Boomers' mistakes.
On the back of one of these turnovers, the Boomers faced a nine-point deficit late in the 3rd. And that’s when Australia's coolheaded veterans stepped in.
Patty Mills dropped 30 tonight, on 10/18 from the field. The little legend’s scoring output in the green and gold has been historic. He led all scorers in points per game at the 2012 Olympics, finished second at the 2016 Olympics , and is again second in this year’s World Cup (among players to make it out of the first round). With Australia’s offence geared around Mills, the guard has consistently come to the Boomers' rescue. Tonight, miraculously, he once again did the same. Getting his rhythm going after being sent to the line on a 3, the stalwart clawed Australia back into the game with heartbreaking long bombs, flip layups and timely assists.
Likewise, in facing NBA-level defenders, Joe Ingles similarly rose to the challenge. After averaging over 7 assists per contest over the course of the tournament, Ingles traded in his pass first nature for 23 much needed points. A late 3rd quarter step back in the face of Gobert demonstrated that Joe was not here to mess around. He was instrumental in the Boomers' success once again.
Throughout the tournament, Australia’s system has been built on and predicated by team cohesiveness.With underrated minutes from Mitch Creek (+9), the Boomers held off a resilient France, the sum of its parts somehow overcoming the turnover whole. Proving to the basketball world that they truly are a force to be reckoned with, the Boomers valiantly withstood everything the French could throw at them. An epic night all around.
Following the win, Australia will finish atop group L. They will face the Czech Republic on Wednesday night in a do or die match to make the top four of the World Cup.
Australian Boomers schedule for 2019 FIBA World Cup: (All times AEST)
September 11: Quarter-finals vs Czech Republic, 11pm (Wednesday)
September 13: Semi-finals
September 15: Medal Games