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Three keys to the Boomers' victorious surge against Finland
It did not look pretty at the start, but Australia buckled down and got it done the right way, with multiple factors weighing into the end result.
For Australian Boomers coach Brian Goorjian, last night’s World Cup opener against Finland has been a long time coming. “I know personally, I’ve been thinking about this game for months,” he said postgame.
He’s been dreaming of starting this campaign, but for much of the first half, it might have felt like more of a nightmare. His team trailed by as much as eight points in the second quarter, with sloppy offence and porous defence allowing Finland to dictate most of the play.
The switch was flipped, though, midway through the second term, with a 15-2 run powering them into the lead before half-time. From there, it was utter dominance, with the end result a comfortable 26-point win despite those early struggles. It was the perfect game to open a long tournament. The Boomers faced adversity, overcame it, and can now look ahead to their next game on Sunday.
“Slow starts can cost you a ballgame. We were lucky tonight that we were switched on from that second quarter,” Josh Giddey said following the win. “We play Germany in a few nights, and a slow start against a team like that, it’s hard to dig yourself out of a hole in a short game like FIBA ball is.”
Giddey starred in the first World Cup game of his career, stuffing the stat sheet and flirting with a triple-double before falling just short as he sat late. He finished with 14 points, nine rebound and eight assists, in a historic debut – in the 21st century, the only other player to post a 10-5-5 stat-line in their first World Cup game is LeBron James.
That effort jumps out from the box score, and Giddey was undeniably impressive, but he was just one of a handful of standouts for the Boomers. As shaky as it started out, the game quickly became an impressive all-around effort for a team whose sights are set much further down the road.
Defence the catalyst
The Boomers have always prioritised defence, and speaking the day before their game against Finland, Patty Mills made it clear that that wouldn’t be changing. “It’s definitely our number one – if we are to be the last team standing, it’s because of our defence,” he said.
That made it all the more concerning when the team struggled to stop Finland early, giving up 35 points through the first quarter and a half. There were too many blow-bys on the perimeter, and once in the paint, the Finns had plenty of easy looks. Throw in a supremely talented shotmaker like Lauri Markkanen, who had 11 first-half points, and Australia found themselves in a hole.
Things flipped with a timeout midway through the second quarter, though, and suddenly the Boomers of old were back. They held Finland to just five points in the last five minutes of the first half, with a small-ball lineup built around Xavier Cooks and Josh Green kicking things into gear. That momentum carried through after the break, with Finland scoring 14 points in the third term as Australia quickly built an unassailable lead.
A big reason for the team’s success in Tokyo was the addition of Matisse Thybulle and Josh Green, and the defensive value they brought. “We’ve never had that length and that athleticism on the wings like that, and it was different for Australia,’ Goorjian said. Now, the Boomers have added even further to that, giving them defensive flexibility that Goorjian says tops any of his previous squads. “You add Xavier Cooks, you add Jack White, we’ve got more depth there, it’s switchable, even our point guard is six-eight,” he said.
The uptick in defence also fed Australia’s offence, which had looked stagnant early in the contest. When things get bogged down in the half-court the Boomers tend to struggle, as they did in their one warmup loss to Brazil and early against Finland. It’s when they’re able to push the tempo that the ball moves more freely, the players cut with purpose, and the points start flowing. “That’s when we look good and that’s when we’re at our best, when we’re out in transition running,” Giddey said.
Without the interior presence of Jock Landale, the Boomers did exactly what they need to do throughout the tournament in the second half: get stops, force turnovers, and find some easy looks in transition. That will be doubly important against a bigger and more talented team in Germany, and in the later stages of the tournament.
Patty finding his feet
The lead-in to this World Cup has been a time of change for Patty Mills. He barely played through the second half of the NBA season, before being traded twice in the space of a day last month.
The shifts haven’t been quite that drastic for him with the Boomers, but after spending the last decade with the ball in his hands, he now has a new point guard alongside him. The arrival of Giddey, and Goorjian’s decision to make him the focal point of Australia’s offence, has forced Mills to shift his role, spending more time off the ball. It was a tough adjustment ahead of the tournament, as he shot 6-34 from three over the team’s four warmup games and never quite found his rhythm.
Still, he remained unconcerned ahead of the tournament. Asked on Thursday about finding his shots in a new-look lineup, his solution was simple. “Reps, just like anything,” he said. “We’ll get better as we play each game, and it’s all about reps and finding out as you go.”
He certainly got those reps in against Finland, hoisting 22 shots, more than double the tally of his next teammate. By the final buzzer, he had a game-high 25 points, leading the Boomers to a higher score than they managed in any of their warm up games. It still wasn’t quite the “FIBA Patty” of old —he was 2-8 from three, with an airball in the second quarter particularly jarring— but he found other ways to get himself going. He mixed it up with the big bodies on both ends of the floor, pulling down six rebounds in the first half and slashing to the rim offensively.
By the final quarter, Mills well and truly had his swagger back. Back-to-back jumpers, the second a nasty stepback three, elicited the fist pump and stank face that Boomers fans have become so accustomed to.
“He’s our major offensive threat, he’s our scorer… everybody’s been saying ‘shoot shoot’, you don’t have to tell him that, his confidence doesn’t wane,” Goorjian said. “We know the lights are on and we have total belief in him, he’s done it time and time again and we’ll continue to go there.”
X-factors off the bench
An interesting subplot played out largely on the sidelines following a heavy fall from Joe Ingles in the second quarter. The Boomers veteran slipped on the court as he drove to the basket, and he stayed down even as the play continued around him. Left with a nasty gash on his forearm, he stormed off the court and had an extended and frustrated exchange with a FIBA official.
“I’ll go and apologise to him… I don’t think he understood anything I was saying,” Ingles said sheepishly post-game. “It’s frustrating, you give up a lot, we’re all here to play for our countries and put a little out there, and you’re slipping all over the floor.”
Australia’s concerns with the playing surface will surely be an ongoing discussion, with Xavier Cooks even speaking to the floor wipers as the Boomers exited at half time. The incident didn’t slow down Ingles, though, as he finished the game with 13 points, including three timely triples, and brought plenty of hard-nosed defence to a strong team effort.
After the game, Goorjian was quick to praise that all-around effort. “I thought he was the difference,” the coach said. “He shot the ball, he defended, and what he does too, he’s emotional and he talks, and he communicates his feelings. There’s not a lot of our guys like that, so he’s unique.”
This squad has been lauded for its depth, and for good reason. With nine NBA players on the roster, and those not in the NBA not far off, it’s one of the strongest Boomers squads ever on paper. That top-down quality translated off the page and onto the hardwood on Friday night, with Ingles leading a bench unit that provided a huge boost when the team needed it.
That started with Xavier Cooks, who was first off the bench for the Boomers in the opening term and made an instant impact. A stretch late in the quarter summed up his non-stop energy, as he tipped a loose rebound out to a teammate and scored to end the possession, before rising in a crowd for a putback layup the next time down the floor. That set the tone and sent a clear message to Finland, even as they led, that there would be no let-up from Australia’s reserves.
In the second half, it was Dante Exum that stepped in and delivered. On top of playing his usual disruptive defence at one end, he was unstoppable at the other, pouring in eight points and dishing three assists in the third quarter alone. That helped to push Australia’s lead from narrow to unassailable, taking away the need to strain in the first game of a long tournament. “The same as Patty, it’s what we expect from him now… out on court, defensively and offensively, he’s been huge for us this last 12 months,” Ingles said.
Add in solid contributions from Jack White and Josh Green, and there were no passengers in the impressive win. “I know coaching on the sideline, [I have] total confidence in all of them, so you’re fearless,” Goorjian said of his bench.
It’s a confidence that his point guard shares, with Giddey appreciative of the quality that is always alongside him. “That’s one of the luxuries of this group is that we can go 12 deep, we can look to anyone on the bench to come in and make an impact.”
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The Boomers face Germany next on Sunday, 27 August 2023 at 630pm AEST.
The game will be broadcast on ESPN Australia, and is available to watch for free via Kayo Freebies.