Discover more from The Pick and Roll
Don't call it a rematch: Boomers ready for crunch clash with Slovenia
Australia came out on top at the Tokyo Olympics, but Brian Goorjian and Patty Mills are only looking forward ahead of tonight's massive game against Slovenia.
A must-win game against Slovenia, with Australia’s medal hopes on the line. Sound familiar?
It’s not quite the same scenario as in 2021 – after all, the last time these two teams met, an Olympic bronze medal was right there to grasp at the final buzzer – but the Boomers will face Slovenia tonight with the stakes incredibly high once again. They need to win every game from here to stay alive in the FIBA 2023 World Cup, and to have any chance of claiming a first medal at the tournament.
Despite the clear parallels to the bronze medal game at the Tokyo Olympics, Boomers coach Brian Goorjian has his eyes fixed firmly ahead. “I just think we’re a completely different team than we were in Tokyo as far as guys that are important in the rotation, and the style of play in which we’re evolving to,” Goorjian said after his team’s final practice this afternoon.
Patty Mills made history in that last meeting with Slovenia, pouring in 42 points to lead his country to a medal, but he too isn’t wasting any time reminiscing ahead of the rematch. “That was two years ago, that was done and dusted and it’s two years moving on now,” Mills said.
“It’s all about us and how we can continue to get better as a group, and they’re probably thinking the same thing as well. The focus as always is about us and how we can move forward, so the past was in the past, now this is a whole new deal.”
Tonight’s clash is the second in a long road of must-win games, and while Australia breezed past Japan on Tuesday night to advance to the second round, they face a much bigger challenge tonight. Slovenia enters the game undefeated, and with Luka Dončić in MVP form, the Boomers will have their hands full from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
How do you slow down Dončić?
Dončić has been near impossible to stop in this World Cup – his 30 points per game leads all players in the tournament, with eight rebounds and seven assists thrown in for good measure. He has one of the most versatile offensive skill sets in the world, and Slovenia have taken full advantage of that, using him off the ball and in the post as well as in isolation and out of pick and rolls.
“In any situation he seems controlled and in his pace, and then just absolutely skilled in every aspect of the game,” Goorjian said. “He gets to the foul line, he can play in the low block, he gets everybody else involved, he can score off his own, he’s powerful, he’s strong – as good as it gets.”
Most dangerously for the Boomers, he is an expert at controlling the tempo of games, slowing the pace to a crawl and surgically dissecting the defence. Australia was brought undone when Germany slowed the game down in the group stage, and Slovenia presents a similar challenge, but on a whole different level.
“He’s a mastermind, and his ability to control the tempo and pace of a game is what he’s good at, so for us, we’ve just got to make it uncomfortable for him and get up and down the floor as quick as we can, so it’s going to be 40 minutes of every possession counts,” Mills said.
The challenge will be creating that discomfort for Dončić without being overly physical. The Dallas Mavericks star is getting to the foul line at a historic rate, with his 14.7 free throws per game the highest mark in FIBA World Cup history. Opponents are constantly walking a tightrope, tiptoeing the line between physical defence and fouling against a player that is an expert at using his body to shift defenders.
Thankfully, the Boomers are better equipped than most to make life difficult for him. Josh Green was moved into the starting lineup for the win over Japan, and he will almost certainly see heavy minutes guarding Dončić. The two are NBA teammates with the Mavericks, and after plenty of time spent going head-to-head in practice, Green is ready to tackle the challenge on the big stage.
“We know who Luka is and how good of a player he is, but at the end of the day we’re going to do our work and make sure we do our film, and we’re going to follow the game plan,” Green said following Tuesday’s win.
Matisse Thybulle will be another important player after successfully shutting down Dončić in Tokyo two years ago. While the Slovenian was hampered by a wrist injury in that game, Thybulle made sure he could never find a rhythm, hounding him into eight turnovers and 7-20 shooting from the field.
“A huge reason why [Thybulle] is so revered in Australia was this last time we played them and getting the medal, he was a piece that we’ve never had in our country before, and he with Luka is vital to our gameplan,” Goorjian said.
“He doesn’t have to score a point, he doesn’t have to make a shot, he can go 0-5, it’s irrelevant, all of that stuff is icing on the cake. It’s part of the game plan defensively, and what he does for us there.”
Those two players will be crucial guarding at the point of attack, but minimising Dončić’s impact will be a whole-team effort. With the ability to sling passes from any angle and to every corner of the court, he can typically find the open man when a double team comes or a defensive rotation is missed. Despite all of the talk of Slovenia being a one-man show, his teammates are more than capable of finishing those plays – they currently have four players shooting above 40% from deep, with Klemen Prepelič (17 points per game) and Mike Tobey (12.7 PPG) enjoying strong tournaments.
Australia’s length and mobility has been crucial to this point, and it will be even more important in tonight’s game, allowing them to switch like crazy without handing Dončić a glaring mismatch, and then contest without fouling. “Our athleticism, our size, our length, our high motor. You look down the end of the bench and each person can get the job done,” Mills said.
“Not saying that it’s only going to take one person to get it done, this is definitely going to be a team job, but like I said, our strength from the beginning has been our defence, and we feel like we’ve still got our best basketball to play on that end of the floor.”
Speed is king for Boomers offence
The Boomers are at their best when the game speeds up, and that was never more evident than in the win over Japan. They finished with 109 points, their highest-ever score in a World Cup game, with Japan’s up-tempo style helping them to get out and run in transition at every opportunity.
That will be harder to do against a Slovenia team that, led by Dončić, is more than happy to slow things down. As they have looked to get out and run, the Boomers have jacked up the second most shots per game in the tournament, trailing only Canada; Slovenia, meanwhile, has taken the fewest shots among the top ten scoring teams. With both teams sitting at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, the winner may be the one that can get the game played closest to their terms.
That battle will be especially important for a Boomers squad that has struggled to generate points consistently in the half-court. Josh Giddey is a playmaking wizard, but he is not at his best in isolation, instead thriving when his teammates are moving with purpose and the defence is shifting. Patty Mills has shown that he can still shoulder a heavy offensive load, but he hasn’t scored as consistently or efficiently as in the past.
Even Australia’s role players are best suited to a faster game – Green and Dante Exum can knock down open shots when the ball swings to them on the perimeter, Cooks and Thybulle can use their speed to beat the defence down the floor and finish at the rim, and Reath is able to more easily find mismatches around the basket.
“If we can play like we did tempo-wise and pace-wise [against Japan], which we couldn’t do against Germany, and these European teams are hard to get like that, that's our challenge tonight,” Goorjian said.
“If it can be that kind of game, our offence, it takes pressure off running plays and system and it’s more free-flowing, and we need that right now where we are so far as a team.”
If Slovenia can drag the Boomers into a half-court slugfest, then there’s every chance they’ll come away with the win; if not, then Australia should be favoured. Outside of a Formula 1 grand prix or a 100 metre final, speed has never been more important.
Starters staying put
The loss to Germany sparked plenty of discussion around Australia’s best lineups, and by extension, their starting five. One change was made when Green replaced Thybulle against Japan, and that shuffle worked perfectly, with Green’s on-ball defence and extra shooting ability providing a boost early in the game. With this matchup with Slovenia always on the horizon, though, there had been talk of more possible changes.
Starting four Nick Kay struggled defensively against Germany, particularly when switched onto guards Dennis Schroder and Maodo Lo. While he is better than most bigs at sliding his feet on the perimeter, he just couldn’t stay in front of those high-level creators. Xavier Cooks, by contrast, was the only Boomers bigs to keep Schroder at bay, swatting one early jumper and forcing him to retreat on numerous occasions from that point on.
“[Cooks] been massive for us, and we knew all along that he would be that utility within the group that can get things done,” Mills said of Cooks’ impact.
“You watch him play, and you watch how the other guys react to him as well, and he’s kind of got that value about him that makes the other guys go as well.”
With Dončić presenting a similar challenge tonight, able to seek out mismatches and exploit them at will, could Cooks slide into the start lineup? While Brian Goorjian didn’t set anything in stone, it sounds like the answer is no.
“Everyone talks about the starting lineup, ours is like wrestling - you’re in, and then you tag and the next group comes in, and that second group has a unique deal together now Matisse is with that,” he said today.
“It wasn’t slow starts, it was getting Josh Green back in, and Josh Green fits with that group, and then Matisse fits with the other group with the switching stuff, and Xavier’s a big part of that, so our balance now is where we want it.”
Of course, just because he isn’t starting, that doesn’t mean Cooks won’t see an uptick in playing time. Against Japan, he played 22 minutes, more than both Kay and starting centre Duop Reath; that number could climb even higher in tonight’s game as Goorjian looks more to that switchable lineup. The same goes for Thybulle, who only played 13 minutes after his move back to the bench against Japan.
Australia’s starters could well stay the same for the remainder of the tournament, but with so much lineup flexibility on their roster, Goorjian is able to mix and match his rotations on a game-by-game basis. As the old saying goes, it doesn’t matter who starts a game — what’s most important is who closes it out.
The Australian Boomers play Slovenia next on 1 Sep (Friday), 10:10pm AEST.
All 82 games in the FIBA 2023 World Cup will be available live via ESPN Australia. Games featuring the Australian Boomers, Team USA and finals will be available via Kayo Freebies at no charge.