World Cup quarter-finals beckon: Boomers overcome early struggles, find win against Dominican Republic

It must be hard for an Australian to find strong coffee in Nanjing, as the Boomers started slow at the FIBA 2019 World Cup once again. The Dominican Republic (DR) tested a sluggish Australian side – slicing their way early through a flat-footed Boomers’ defence.

Aron Baynes played himself out the game through foul-trouble (and a reckless tech) and his absence was felt on both ends of the court. Patty Mills managed to take over again for Australia late – and the Boomers’ class eventually prevailed – but the 82-76 win offered some worrying signs.

The win tonight felt shaky, and while Australian’s might not have entirely fell asleep at the wheel, in coughing up twenty turnovers, they certainty had a few heavy blinks.

Australia has been routinely criticized for running a conservative ‘drop’ strategy against opposing teams’ pick and rolls. Giving up a staggering average of 50 two-point attempts per game, the Boomers have clearly decided to live and die on the mid-range shot. On paper, there is a method to Australia’s madness, as the strategy radically limits and aptly contests three point opportunities. Coming into the game, the DR were averaging 26 threes per content (at 32%) – against Australia, however, they only shot 3/14 (21%) from distance.

Following the win, statistically, Australia has the best three-point defence out of the entire competition. Holding opposing teams to 29% on a paltry 21 attempts per game, the Boomers are only bleeding 0.18 points per 3 point attempt. (To put that into some perspective, the Philippines, giving up 26 threes a game at 45%, were allowing 0.35 points per shot attempt before they were eliminated). The Boomers are choosing to keep pick and roll situations as a two-man game – refusing to offer weak-side rotational help that could lead to open shots from distance. In the modern world, where everyone shoots threes, the strategy makes some sense.

And yet, while Australia adeptly took out the DR’s long-range snipers, they also need to recognise when to allow three point attempts. The DR never seemed likely from outside, instead routinely slicing their way through the interior space provided by the Boomers’ defence. Cleverly, the DR’s bigs often flipped their ball-picks late – positioning themselves as if they were setting a screen in one direction before flipping shoulders at the last moment – a technique that caused fissures across Australia’s front-line. These easy baskets translated into momentum for the DR, and as Rigoberto Mendoza snaked his way through the Boomers 4th quarter defence for another midrange jumper, it again seemed like Australia’s primary weakness could prove to be its downfall.

The Boomers lifted their intensity after half-time, likewise tweaking their defensive strategy by going under ball-screens or switching curl-cut pick and rolls. However, these adjustments felt ill-prepared – or at least, poorly executed. It may be unfair to criticize Australia may be playing the long game here, and internalising how to take away the three is a vital aspect of the modern game. Nevertheless, the Boomers will face other teams with non-shooters. Australia needs to learn who to leave open.

Another trend to watch: foul trouble on the Australian big men. It was Andrew Bogut who fouled out against Lithuania. This time, Aron Baynes had to sit the game out early, with a technical foul following right on the back of his fourth. Thankfully, Nick Kay's stoic performance (7 points, 8 rebounds --3 of them offensive-- and 2 assists) reduced damage stemming from the Dominican Republic's early aggression.

As mentioned earlier, the issue of turnovers continued. The positive backwash from a win diluted the impact of this troubling phenomenon, but it shows itself as an Achilles' heel in waiting, that will eventually rear its ugly head at the most unwelcome moment.

It took a group effort to pull this win out --the Boomers assisted on all 30 of their field goals in this game-- and Patty Mills' scoring (19 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and a +/- of +21) surely helped.

But the habit of playing down to an opponent's level cannot continue. Not to take anything away from the Dominican Republic's performers tonight --Eloy Vargas had 16 points, 7 rebounds while Victor Liz clocked 14 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals-- but Australia's talent and execution should have allowed them to come away with a more decisive outcome, earlier in the game.

Update: Australia's win on Saturday night could very well have locked their spot for the quarter-finals in. France's 78-75 win over Lithuania on Saturday secures the Boomers' advancement.

The outcome of the team's game against France decides who Australia plays in the quarter-finals. A win against France will allow them to play the second-placed team from Group K - either Brazil, Czechoslovakia or NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo's Greece. Losing to the French means the Boomers will play Team USA.

The Australian Boomers improve their winning streak to 4-0, and play France next on Monday, 9 September, at 10pm AEST. For Australian fans, the Boomers’ run in the 2019 FIBA World Cup can be viewed on Kayo Sports and Foxtel.

Full box score can be found on the FIBA website.

Australian Boomers schedule for 2019 FIBA World Cup: (All times AEST)

September 9: Boomers vs France (10:00pm)

September 10 & 11: Quarter-Finals

September 13: Semi-Finals

September 15: Medal Games