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Do the Boomers know who they are leading into Rio?
Moments after the Boomers had put the finishing touches to a 93-63 Game 2 demolition of the Pac-12 All Stars, to complete a Farewell Series sweep, Pac-12 coach, the legendary Mike Montgomery, poured cold water over any buzz regarding the Boomers as genuine gold medal contenders.
Montgomery was not dismissive. He simply stated the obvious: that the rest of the world had loaded rosters, and that the most obvious strength of the Boomers was nationalistic pride.
And so I was anxious to ask Boomers head coach, Andrej Lemanis, what the Boomers could hold their hat on, leading into Rio.
What identity had the Boomers been cultivating since 2013, when he took over as head coach?
Lemanis promptly flipped the question on me, much like an Aron Baynes screen.
“Well, let me ask you: what did you see tonight?”
Flustered at the counter-strike, I blurted out the first notions that came to mind.
Pride in the Boomers jersey.
“There you go – beautiful," he said jokingly. "Tick the box.”
Playful jabs aside, it’s a pertinent question to consider.
Whilst the Boomers have publicly made their medalling aspirations clear (and going for gold, no less!), some of the medal noise on the periphery has been made from quite an insular perspective. To be fair, the squad understands how tough of a challenge that will be. It’s time that the rest of us acknowledge that too.
The rest of the world is good. To get into the medal rounds the Boomers will need to navigate a treacherous road which includes Team USA, and Euro-powerhouses, Serbia and France, in the group stage. Beyond that? The first crossover game could be against the likes of either Spain, Lithuania, Argentina or the frenzied home country of Brazil. Yikes.
There will be a time in which the squad will face uncertain times; where self-introspection, grasping onto an emotional anchor, and something that unites the collective to beat the odds, becomes integral for survival. You need an identity.
What is that for these Boomers?
“In terms of on-court stuff, disruptive defense and being a team that is just consistently annoying to play against defensively, is something we strive to be,” said Lemanis, expanding on his thoughts.
“[And] at the offensive end, a team that spreads the floor, and shares the ball, and plays for the right reasons. People sacrifice for the good of the team.”
Gauging the temperature of Boomers observers, it was apparent that this farewell series against a nondescript All Stars squad served as the ultimate you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t scenario.
Lose, and serious questions are posed regarding the team’s chances in Rio. Win, and they’ll merely be beating up on college kids, and subjected to nit-picking that comes with the territory.
“Obviously what this is about is inching forward and getting a little bit better each day,” said Lemanis.
Getting better each day leading into Rio is a given, particularly with their ambitions. But what Lemanis’ comment also underscores is the growing belief that these Boomers are not yet the finished product. There’s time to grow, and for now, the results don’t matter – only the process.
What Montgomery referenced in his appraisal of the Boomers’ medal chances, that their greatest asset is their national pride, appears to underpin much of what the Boomers do.
“The unity is without question with this group, and it’s one of the things, that once you get into this environment, you realise just what it means for guys to come and play for Australia,” said Lemanis.
“Many of them speak to the fact that it’s the best basketball experience of the year because they’re playing with their mates – they’re playing with people who play for the right reasons.”
Notions of pride and unity are ethereal. It will make the Boomers cut harder, screen for each other, juice them up for defensive energy.
But when the going invariably gets tough, the Boomers will need more tangible anchors in which to base their play upon. There needs to be a tangible reason for the Boomers to be better than a host of other nations aiming for a medal that goes beyond even powerful tropes of national pride.
That will come in the form of on-court adjustments and configurations – and you get the sense that the Boomers are still trying to figure that out.
What these two games have shown is that the on-court product is still much very reliant on Patty Mills. When he’s on the court, the Boomers play with more energy and verve on both ends, and at a pace that pushes the tempo for the opposition into uncomfortable levels. He’s the Boomers’ best player.
Mills represents the Boomers best off-the-bounce threat, with the attention that he demands opening up crevices for his teammates to attack. Those crevices become larger when Lemanis unleashes secondary playmakers, such as Matthew Dellavedova, Kevin Lisch and Joe Ingles, to flank Mills.
Just watch this.
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Everything happens because of the gravity of Mills.
Over two games, Aron Baynes was able to beast fools down low, young fools nonetheless, in part because of the threat of Mills, as well as botched rotations from a hastily arranged squad. Ingles had 11 assists in game 2, again benefitting from the extra space afforded to him because of Mills.
But when Mills is off? Yeesh.
The Boomers have looked stagnant in this short series, but that has been a recurring theme for years. Ingles can bail them out of possessions with off-beat passes that knife through the defense, but things just feel laboured.
For all of Delly’s great strengths, he struggles mightily to puncture the first line of defense and has always been more of an expert setup guy, and off-the-ball 3-point threat.
One solution might be to have a dynamic shooter/playmaker, such as a Kevin Lisch or Chris Goulding, on the court at all times when Mills gets his breather.
Goulding could be the best shot-maker in the team outside of Patty Mills. The Boomers were able to get some traction on offense in the second half of game 2 by simply running some simple pin-downs for Goulding, uncorking the sorts of space that Mills artificially creates.
Goulding also has the playmaking chops to create off of side pick-and-roll action.
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But Goulding’s inattentive defense has always been his Achilles heel, and his detractors will also point to his iffy shot selection in crucial moments. Do you trust him on the floor in the latter stages of a knockout game in the Olympic cauldron?
Kevin Lisch represents an interesting case.
He’s unproven on the international stage but Lisch brings defensive energy on every damn possession. He also has just enough off-the-bounce creativity that enables Mills to play off-the-ball, unlocking more pace and intent into the Boomers’ half-court sets.
The big question mark will be his 3-point shooting. Lisch shot close to 41 percent from deep last season for the Illawarra Hawks, but international play jumps up a gear. If he cans enough 3-pointers, he could act as a viable placeholder who keeps up the tempo whilst Mills rests.
How Lemanis deciphers the puzzle will be interesting leading into Rio.
He even threw in Ryan Broekhoff as a small ball power forward for a stretch just to see the results. Broekhoff is very much a standstill shooter and isn't on the same level as an off-the-bounce threat as the players mentioned above. It’s also unclear if he could survive on the glass against Olympic opposition.
There are also some questions surrounding the front court.
Whilst Aron Baynes showed that he was capable of holding the fort whilst Andrew Bogut recovers, Cam Bairstow, who needs to use the Olympics to resuscitate his confidence, looked every bit the player who has hardly seen much game time over the past season. The former Bull looked tentative on offense, and slow on some defensive rotations, but he did seem to slowly adjust to the speed of the game.
On the other hand, Brock Motum flashed his all-round skillset which makes him uniquely valuable for this Boomers team. His physicality, ability to hit the glass, and versatility in pressing the opposition on defense are tailor-made for the style of play that Lemanis hopes to adopt.
“That’s one area where he’s really grown in his journey with us over the last period of time,” said Lemanis. “His understanding of how to be disruptive at the front of our pressing defenses and his ability to slide and keep everyone in front of him.”
Said Motum, when asked about his progress within the national squad, “I think I’ve done a good job. Just knowing my role is to bring a lot of energy and try to impact the game that way. Whether it can be through rebounds, pressure defense or getting easy buckets on fast breaks, just know that I have to bring that energy each time.”
There, you have it again.
Notions such as energy and hustle were recurring themes in the postgame press conference. They’re critical tenets for a team that dreams of a medal.
“With this group as well, there’s a little bit of [a] sense that it’s time,” said Lemanis. “We need to do something special on the world stage. We’ve been talking about it long enough. This group has a certain belief and I think it feels a sense of responsibility for Australian basketball.”
Zoom in a bit and the Boomers still have questions regarding optimal lineups and what to do when Patty Mills sits. It’s a jigsaw puzzle that Lemanis and his stuff will need to work out in the remaining lead up games to Rio, a gauntlet that includes dates against Argentina, Lithuania, and possibly Spain.
“Now we get the opportunity to go overseas and continue to build,” said Lemanis.
Another box to tick on the checklist leading into Rio.