It takes time to play yourself into shape, and even longer to play yourself into an identity. Seemingly, this search for self only took the Boomers four warmup games.
Reimagining an offence built upon misdirection, Australia broke Team USA – embodying a decidedly Australian togetherness whilst doing so. Buoyed by a supporting cast that worked tirelessly behind the scenes, the Boomers’ production quality felt instantly professionalised; the team stylistically elevated itself from a patch-work B-Grade horror film to a performance akin to shooting Birdman in one take. The win against the U.S indeed felt miraculously filmic, and through the implementation of a revamped defensive output (one that was clearly more adhesive than the month-old blu-tack schemes they had pinned up previously), the Boomers ostensibly shored up their crisis of character.
While expectations are high for Australia, it would be myopic to look past the threat of Team Canada in their World Cup opener. Canada beat Australia handily just over a week ago, and throughout their two exhibition games, Kevin Pangos (and the like), often burnt through the Boomers’ backcourt more so than Australia’s own hole in the ozone layer. Sure, Australia defeated Canada as well, but their lone win was a brutalist rough-cut. Cory Joseph will be rejoining the Canadians in China. Nick Nurse knows how to adjust. Team Canada is smart, well-drilled, and Khem Birch can be a damn handful down low. The squad will try to lull Australia to sleep for easy buckets. Nurse might even bring his guitar.
The Boomers meanwhile have settled on an eight-man core, and a shortened rotation will help the Australians on an immediate level. (A fifth and final warm-up game – a defeat to Germany on Wednesday night – likewise wasn’t a true indicator of Australia’s refined performance, due in part to travel fatigue, Jock Landale’s absence and subsequent experimental rotations.)
Nevertheless, this team will go only as far as its central players will take them, and how acutely this squad has developed is yet to be seen on a consistent basis. Until we see sustainable improvement – and until their opening tip-off on Sunday night against Canada – there are still some key points that the Boomers might like to address.
The icing on the pick and roll cake
Many have criticized the Boomers’ conservative drop scheme in their pick and roll coverage, and a quick look at the shot chart in Australia’s losses can attest to a certain precarity felt in and around the foul-line. However, these shots only instantiated a larger defensive issue – an inability on the Boomers’ behalf to force teams into their secondary or third options on offence.
Far too often, Australian guards have died easily and completely on picks, allowing quick perimeter players (such as Canada’s Kaza Kajami-Keane and Andrew Nembhard) to attack with an unimpeded head of steam.
Team Canada often run multiple hand-offs and ball-screens (video) as misdirection, and in likewise possessing a plethora of viable outside marksmen, will look to unleash hell upon the Boomers once collapsing their defence. Canada will run everything – or attempt to run almost everything – through the centre of the court (video). Here, they unlock the specs that make their offensive system zoom – throwing nifty drop-offs to Birch or kicking out to shooters – simply by getting easily to where they want to be.
The Boomers will therefore need to neuter Canada’s actions early, and/or force them to the sidelines late into the clock. In doing so, the Boomers have to address their previously poor ‘icing’ of the pick and roll. ‘Icing’ the pick and roll means forcing a ball-handler away from – or ‘rejecting’ – the upcoming screen, and in some moments, Australia indeed coerced Canada to go the direction they wanted. Notice how, in the second clip below, Nathan Sobey turns almost sideways against the approaching pick.
However, this strategy also requires a defender to keep the ball-handler away from the middle of the court – effectively enlisting the out-of-bounds line as an extra defender whilst doing so. Painfully aware of this oft-implemented defensive strategy, Canada’s guards would routinely ‘snake’ this action against Australia during their warm-up games – initially heading towards the baseline, before quickly flipping back towards the centre of the court. This manoeuvre often leads to wide open shots as the defence scrambles, and if Australia continues to run a conservative drop scheme, this countermove leaves our big men frozen in no man’s land.
Nevertheless, there are adjustments Australia can make. In their win against the U.S, the Boomers finally began to send their big men out far enough to contain dribble penetration – with great success.
While exposing themselves to switches and blow-bys, this option may similarly help Australia mitigate the damage Canada can cause in these in-between spaces. Pick your poison, really.
Ironically, Australia might also bolster their defences by stealing a trick out of Team USA’s defensive playbook. Gregg Popovich’s squad outplayed Canada resolutely on Monday night (84-68), due in large part because they forced and ‘mushed’ Canada repeatedly away from middle – even after navigating multiple screens and misdirection. Pay close attention to Kemba Walker’s work in the first clip below; Walker readies himself to not only contain Birch’s short roll to the foul line, but then sprints out and forcing a shooter to put the ball down towards Myles Turner’s help side D.
Australia may not have the athletes that the U.S does (and utilising a frenzied switching scheme could lead to breakdowns defensively), but if Australia can similarly dictate Canada’s movement, they may have a real chance of disrupting Canada’s flow. This game will be won and lost defensively in the centre of the court.
Size still matters
Before internalising complex off-ball movement, Australia relied far too frequently on simple high ball screens for Joe Ingles and Patty Mills. Nurse’s squad is smart – they should know who to help off and when. Canada will likewise attempt to weak Ingles and Mills (before crunching down as a suffocating unit on their drives and passing lanes), and if Australia goes deep into its bench at any stage, Nurse will let their 9th and 10th men shoot with glee (video). If Canada can snuff out Australia’s sets, the Boomers unfortunately don’t have an undeniable edge.
However, the Boomers have had success against switch-heavy, communication-light defences. Running a prehistoric iteration of their now modernised misdirection offence, Australia has already dropped some knowledge against Canada’s help defenders.
Will Canada continue to switch, or will they throw out different looks like a zone? Against the U.S, the Canadians toggled restlessly, switching in an attempt to bait Team USA into robotic, one-on-one post-ups (video). They may lay the same trap against the Boomers, having had some luck with it in previous outings (video).
Team Canada will deliberately go small – often playing the 6’9 Birch as their nominal centre – running out pace and space units akin to our modern day NBA. However, if Australia can contain Canada defensively, they should resist sizing down to their level – instead looking to take advantage of their size in and away from the basket.
For now, Lemanis has resisted implementing a tandem of Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes on the court at once. Interchanging Bogut and Baynes has given the squad a touch of versatility. Like swapping out only a shirt and keeping the same set of pants on each day, the toggling between the two established centres has made Australia’s outfit look relatively new every five minutes. Potentially, this pairing is one that Lemanis has kept in his back pocket for a game that actually matters.
Regardless, enabling Bogut and Baynes (and the irrepressible Jock Landale and the ever improving Nick Kay) to work as rim runners and high-post facilitators will be key. Against the U.S, Australia scored 46 points in the paint (video) compared to America’s 26 – this discrepancy due largely in part to Mills and Ingles’ ability to scorch defences through back-cuts (below) and screen-assists (video), rather than archaic bully ball.
Stationing Australia’s bigs as veiled low-post playmakers, à la the Golden State Warriors, could help the Boomers step on Team Canada’s small-ball hopes. There is an added power (and a trickle-down effect) in Bogut and Baynes’ screens and tip-ins, as forcing Canada to give the offensively limited, Owen Klassen, more minutes, would be a huge win for the Boomers. Don’t get suckered into Canada’s game – there’s a mammoth difference between going ‘small’ (say, playing Marcus Smart at the 2) and playing ‘slight’ (running Cam Gliddon at the same position).
Bogut’s apparent ankle sprain during the Germany warmup game has been reduced to a day-to-day warning, but his health will still be vital for the Boomers to monitor. As will be a concerted team aggression to crash the boards. Watch out for Landale to outsprint opponents for easy points. The young big is likely to play a ton in this game, his ability to guard 3s (masquerading as 4s) on the opposing end, will likewise be influential.
In saying all that, and in more simple terms, Australia will have to capitalise on its flow offence and actually, you know, knock some open shots down. After a relatively poor long-distance love affair so far (just under 30% from three through five games), Australia has shown that it put up bricks in a hurry. However, when stifled, Team Canada has shown that it too can go cold from range – and, with Oshae Brissett out – they have less versatility and fire power across the front-line.
The Boomers could get the games on their terms, strangling the air from Canada’s offensive oxygen. If they do, look for them to start this World Cup tournament just like the Richmond Oilers.