Bronzed: How the Australian Boomers made history and got their medal

The Boomers secured a historic Olympic bronze medal with Saturday's win over Slovenia, and their Tokyo journey was one for the ages.

15 Olympic tournaments, 12 FIBA World Cups, five fourth-place finishes (four at Olympics), countless heartbreaks… one medal.

The Australian Boomers have finally broken through, winning the country’s first senior men’s basketball medal at a major tournament. Their 107-93 win over Slovenia was tense at times, but the final buzzer started a long-awaited coronation for a group that is now Australia’s most successful male basketball team.

While a pre-tournament win over the United States and the team’s “Gold Vibes Only” mantra gave hope for a greater prize, it’s hard to view this Olympic campaign as anything other than a success. For the first time ever, a major tournament hasn’t ended in a Boomers loss, and there’s no need to search for hidden successes and moral victories. That leaves all of Australia free to revel in a more obvious win, and to celebrate the players, coaches and more that brought them there.

The Golden Generation finally get their reward

Every Australian basketball fan knows all too well the heartbreak of recent medal chases, and the core group of this year’s Boomers team were present for all of them. Images of Mills, Ingles, Dellavedova and Baynes left heartbroken from another late-tournament loss are burned into our brains, and the fear of another such finish in Tokyo loomed large behind a veneer of confidence and optimism.

To see those same faces finally celebrating, achieving the goal that has been present for the last decade-plus of Boomers basketball, was a release for the entire country. It’s too early to say for sure, but this may have been the last Olympic hurrah for the iconic Boomers core. To see such a likeable group of players leave one of their biggest dreams unfulfilled would have been a heartbreaking end to their story. Maybe a gold medal would have been the fairytale finish, but after seeing the joy on the faces of every Boomer in the hours after the game, it’s safe to say that bronze will do just fine (for now). Mills himself said it best, sitting alongside Ingles at the podium with both struggling to find words to describe their feelings. “We’ve been through a lot together, on the court, off the court, and it’s all paid off.”

A bronze medal doesn’t change our perception of them, but as memories start to fade decades from now, it will be nice to have clear-cut evidence of the greatness of this group. They have made history, and that will never be taken away from them.

Patty Mills cements his legacy as an all-time great

We’ve known for years that Patty Mills is among Australia’s finest players. After this year’s Olympic tournament, and especially the bronze medal game, it’s becoming clear that he is one of the best FIBA performers regardless of country. Australia’s offence stagnated for long stretches of the Olympic tournament, and that was no different against Slovenia. Ball movement slowed, players stood in place and the scoring threatened to grind to a halt. The one exception was Mills, a constant blur of movement both on and off the ball, drawing the attention of multiple defenders at all times.

Slovenia could have thrown their whole roster at him and it wouldn’t have mattered one bit — Mills was unstoppable and dragged his teammates along with him. The Boomers could have easily gone into half-time trailing, but 26 points from Mills accounted for nearly half of the team’s total as they took a narrow lead into the break. As Slovenia tried to adjust their defensive schemes in the second half he found the perfect balance between scoring and playmaking, finishing with nine assists and just two turnovers. More importantly, he had 42 points, the most ever in a medal game and the second-most by any Australian in an Olympic game.

Mills moved into the top ten scorers in Olympic history, and he now sits nestled one spot below Manu Ginóbili and ahead of Dražen Petrović in seventh place. That’s amazing company to hold in any context, let alone at the biggest sporting event in the world. When FIBA World Cup credentials are added in, Mills’ international career becomes even more impressive.

At his first two major tournaments for the Boomers, the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Cup, he ranked in the top-20 in scoring despite his relative lack of experience and more limited role. Since then, he has played in three Olympic tournaments and one World Cup, missing only the 2014 World Cup with a shoulder injury. At all four events, he has averaged more than 20 points per game; at all four, he has ranked in the top five in scoring, even leading the tournament at the London Olympics. Sprinkled throughout that consistent excellence are a handful of signature moments, from a game winner against Russia in 2012, to a 30-point explosion in a 2019 World Cup win over France, another 30-point game in Australia’s first ever win over the United States, and so many more.

Just when it seemed that he couldn’t get any better in the green and gold, Mills produced his masterpiece in Tokyo. 23.3 points per game and another top-five scoring rank, 6.3 assists per game, and one of the greatest Olympic performances of all-time in a medal-deciding game. He was relentless from start to finish, and it showed after the game. “The tank was very empty,” he said postgame, “but you just knew you had to find deeper layers to be able to pull the best out of us for the team, and I think that’s what all of us have done.”

Even more impressive than the numbers, though, is the regard that Mills is held in every time he pulls on the green and gold. The legend of “Boomers Patty” has transcended just Australia and spread to be known by basketball fans around the world. The best international teams on the globe focus their entire defensive schemes on slowing him down, and they rarely if ever succeed. This Olympic tournament was no different, with Boomers opponents trying everything to stop him. A star-studded United States team was the only one to find some success, with Mills hitting countless stepback threes and contested layups as he led the Boomers to their first ever medal. If this really is to be his final Olympic appearance, at least we got to see one of Australia’s best, at his absolute best, one last time.

Brian Goorjian’s defence will be the foundation of more medal runs

Anyone that watched the most recent NBL season knew what Brian Goorjian would bring to the table with the Boomers. His Illawarra Hawks team scrambled like crazy on defence, pushing them to a surprising finals berth despite entering the season without much fanfare. This Boomers team certainly had more hype than those Hawks entering the tournament, but Goorjian’s impact might have been more profound. They started the tournament slowly offensively, but they were still able to grind their way to an undefeated group phase and a quarter-final rout over Argentina with some phenomenal defensive performances. With a mixture of hardworking veterans and athletic wings, Goorjian was given close to the perfect roster to execute his gameplan.

The result? Australia held every one of their opponents below their tournament scoring average, with the exception of Italy who landed bang on their overall mark. Their opposition shot 44.4% from the field and 31.4% from three, with the length, mobility and the commitment of the Boomers allowing them to close out hard on shooters and then help their teammates to recover.

That has helped to keep their offence afloat, too, as they have scored 18.2 points per game from opposition turnovers. That’s the beauty of Goorjian’s defensive prowess—it flows into other areas of the game, and the energy that it brings seems to have an infectious quality that spreads it through every player on his roster. That was certainly the case against Slovenia, where they hassled and harassed Luka Dončić into a handful of early turnovers and missed shots and snatched the momentum.

The players knew that, with Goorjian at the helm, their defence had the chance to set them apart. “Our defence, our hands, our activity that we were going to live and die by this whole campaign,” Mills said. “We said it from the beginning that if we were to achieve history for our country we would have to do it on the defensive end.”

With the talents of Mills, Ingles and Dellavedova set to depart in the not-too-distant future, the Boomers may not always be able to outgun their opposition at that end. For as long as Goorjian is in place, though, they will be a defensive force and a chance to win in every game they play.

Matisse Thybulle is an instant Aussie legend

It helped Goorjian’s case that he had the personnel to execute his gameplan perfectly. Danté Exum was a welcome addition to the roster on the perimeter, with the length and athleticism to hassle opposing ball handlers, and Nick Kay was exceptional under the basket and switching onto the perimeter. The real key, though, was Boomers debutant Matisse Thybulle, who led the tournament with three steals per game and set the tone for the Boomers in every contest.

Already an All-NBA defender, Thybulle proved himself to be even more effective in FIBA competition. The scrambling of the Boomers defence was so often only possible because the safety net of Thybulle was in place in the middle of the floor. His judgement of when to help off his man and when to stick tight was perfect throughout the tournament, and with the reach and quickness to react to any play he always cut out at least one course of action for the opposition. Be it slamming the door on a passing lane, cutting off a drive or closing out on a shot, he never allowed an easy out. With the shorter three-point line compressing every offensive play, Thybulle was able to have a huge impact on every single defensive play for the Boomers.

Related: How Thybulle and Exum are giving the Boomers a defensive boost

Even more important in the bronze medal game was his on-ball defence. Luka Dončić entered as the most prolific player in the tournament, and Thybulle was inserted into the starting lineup largely to shadow him defensively. In the first four minutes of the game, Dončić had two turnovers, two missed shots and zero moments of rest with Thybulle constantly forcing the issue. Dončić went on to have his worst game of the tournament, shooting 35% from the field and finishing with eight turnovers, thanks largely to Thybulle’s efforts and a what sounded like a wrist injury from an earlier game.

Two years ago, very few Australians would have known that Thybulle was even eligible to represent the country. The way that he has seamlessly joined such an established group and team culture, as evidenced by his “Road to Tokyo” vlogs and his back-and-forth with teammates on social media, has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the tournament to watch.

Andrew Bogut’s retirement left a gaping hole on the Boomers roster, and while Thybulle is far from a like-for-like replacement, he has taken over as the team’s defensive leader and looks set to be there for years to come.

Jinglin’ Joe steps up when it counts

At times during the Tokyo run, it was tough to judge the play of Joe Ingles. His shooting splits were stellar as always, as he knocked down 40.5% of his triples across the tournament. He made plays for his teammates, with four assists per game and plenty of time spent on the ball in the half court.

And yet, there were moments where it felt like he wasn’t quite doing enough. Ingles is an unselfish player by nature, and that suits his role in the NBA perfectly. When you’re teammates with gunners like Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanović, it makes sense to take a back seat and wait for the open shots to come. For the Boomers to be at their best, though, Ingles needs to be selfish and hunt for his shot.

That was most glaringly obvious in the semi-final against the United States, where Patty Mills copped plenty of attention and the rest of the offence was quickly bogged down. The second-most accomplished scorer on the Boomers roster, Ingles took just five shots, making three of them, as he continued to look for his teammates and they continued to struggle against a surging opponent. As his team searched for a spark to ignite them and Mills struggled, Ingles seemingly slipped back into his complementary NBA role, playing unselfishly to a fault.

Well, there were no such issues in the bronze medal game. In arguably the biggest moment of his career, Ingles was aggressive from the outset and forced Slovenia’s perimeter players to close out hard. He put up ten threes in the game, his highest mark of the tournament, making four while shooting 50% from the field. When his opponent did close out too far, he punished them off the dribble in his herky-jerky, slow motion style, getting into the paint and distributing from there.

Ingles has always been an effective player for the Boomers, and his numbers back that up. When they needed a little more from him to close out a medal, he stepped up to the plate and delivered with 16 huge points. Already an Australian icon, he now has an iconic moment to match.

Despite NBA struggles, Aron Baynes was still a crucial piece

The Tokyo Olympics showed that Baynes is still one of Australia’s most important players in international competition. That was clear both in his presence and his absence, as he played in Australia’s first two games before missing the remainder of the tournament with a neck injury. Already short on frontcourt depth when at full strength, the Boomers struggled to replace his presence inside the paint, and particularly on the boards.

In the two games that Baynes played, the Boomers averaged a +10 rebounding differential and 7.5 offensive rebounds allowed per game. Across the three games that he missed, that rebounding differential was -8.3, and they gave up a massive 13.8 offensive rebounds per contest. That included games where they were monstered on the glass against both Germany and the United States, with second-chance points proving costly against the Americans.

After taking just five shots in 15 minutes against Nigeria, Baynes poured in 14 points and hit a pair of threes against Italy before his absence occurred. Already a crucial presence defensively, a hot-shooting Baynes would have been a huge boost in the elimination rounds. He may have lost his shooting touch with Toronto, but Baynes is still a much-needed big body in the Australian setup with plenty of basketball smarts. Unfortunately, with his 35th birthday in December fast approaching, this may have been the last time we see Baynes at a major tournament, but the Big Banger got a thoroughly deserved medal in return.

A regeneration is coming, but the future is bright

With the dominance shown by Mills and the current core, it would be easy to look ahead with pessimism at a future without them. That certainly won’t be the case, though, as Australia’s younger talents stepped up in Tokyo and look ready to carry the Boomers program forward.

Thybulle’s impact has already been discussed, but he was far from the only young Boomer to step up. Danté Exum was back to his best after countless injuries, and he played a huge role on both ends of the floor. There was some clear rust early in the tournament, with a handful of out-of-control drives and wayward passes, but his talent shone through with every passing game. Athletic ball handlers will always be a point of difference in FIBA competition, and Exum’s ability to beat defenders off the dribble and penetrate opened doors for the Boomers offence that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

With the NBA now in his sights, Jock Landale will almost certainly be a lock for the Boomers in coming tournaments. Things looked a little bleak when Baynes was ruled out, but Landale and Nick Kay battled hard and played their best basketball on the biggest stage. At 25 and with a well-rounded game, Landale could quickly become one of the centrepieces of the Boomers offence. With he and Exum scoring 14 and 12 points against Slovenia respectively, they have proven to be up to the challenge as of right now.

Related: From Australia to Tokyo: Nick Kay just gets shit done

Even outside of the major Tokyo contributors, there is clear upside looking ahead. Josh Green showed plenty of impressive flashes, albeit in very limited minutes, and he could form a defensive core with Thybulle and Exum that will terrorise the perimeter for years to come. Duop Reath was also used sparingly, but he should continue to grow playing for Goorjian in Illawarra and will be in his prime as Paris approaches.

Outside of the current roster, Josh Giddey is the biggest future addition. The NBA’s sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, he has the starpower to eventually take the mantle from Mills as Australia’s preeminent player. Much like Mills, he is capable of creating an entire team’s offence from his own hands, albeit in a very different way. His combination of size and playmaking should translate well into the international game, and his performances in the lead-in games before this tournament showed plenty of promise.

Mills and Ingles are showing no signs of slowing down, and with Baynes and Dellavedova playing their roles in a historical moment, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have concluded in a well-deserved milestone for Boomers —and Australian basketball— success. It’s good to know, though, that when they do eventually hang up their jerseys, the next generation will be ready to carry the program forward.

*All images credited to FIBA.