PERTH - What is the meaning of one solitary warmup game? To be even more specific, what are the implications of the first practice outing, for a group of hyper-talented athletes who haven’t played together in almost three years?
These are the questions hovering over the Australian Boomers, following the disappointing start to their World Cup preparations in Perth on Friday night. Those with a vested interest in the Boomers' success will certainly hope that both questions can be dismissed, and the results of a disappointing 90-70 defeat to Team Canada quickly become an afterthought.
The Boomers were thoroughly outplayed by the Canadians tonight. That’s a comment that can be applied to every aspect of the game. Perimeter defence. Shooting. Rebounding. Rotations. Pick any factor you want and the Canadians simply performed at a level the Boomers couldn’t match.
The visitors from North America looked like a team who, despite the withdrawal of their own NBA superstars, have found cohesion following two warm up games against Nigeria last week. The Australians, on the other hand, looked like a team chasing down an identity that defined this group, when they last competed at full strength in 2016.
Speaking postgame, Canadian head coach Nick Nurse gave voice to the search for cohesion both sides have been on over the past month, while reaffirming the confidence he has found within his own squad.
“Chemistry is an elusive thing, so I am happy we have been able to get some,” Nurse said. More: “It was nice to have good chemistry at both ends.”
On the Australian side, Andrej Lemanis admitted that tonight’s performance left plenty of room for improvement, while proclaiming that the challenge offered by Canada wasn’t surprising to him and his charges.
“The game gave us exactly what these games are supposed to give us: learning and teaching opportunities and an ability to find out a little bit about who we are,” Lemanis noted postgame. “I think it is a nice reminder of intensity level of international basketball.
“It was evident that they had played a couple of games together and that was our first time playing together. There are things to be fixed, of course, and learnings to be had.”
Lemanis was also quick to preach calm following the game. Better than most international teams, the Boomers know that one game will never define an international campaign. The Australian head coach is ultimately correct - it would be foolish to draw definitive conclusions from what amounts to the Boomers' first scrimmage against an outside opponent since coming together two weeks ago - but there are spot fires that need to be put out. These are clear and obvious, and must be fixed before the team leaves Australian shores.
Defensively, the Boomers looked like a team searching for a schematic identity. The Canadian offence pounced upon an indecisive opponent, and found great success. The visitors shot 13-32 from three-point range and only committed eight turnovers on the night.
“Defensively, I think just finding our groove with how we are going to be,” Lemanis said. “Like how intense we are going to be. How much up the floor we are going to be? How much do we sit in driving lanes versus how much do we stay connected to three-point shooters. All of that sort of stuff will come out of that game.”
As a team, the Boomers shot 6-34 from three. Players not named Patty Mills shot 2-21. Matthew Dellavedova went 0-9 from the field, including 0-6 from behind the three-point arc. Eight Australians committed turnovers, culminating in a team-wide total of 18. Schematics weren’t as much the issue with the offensive end.
The meagre tally of 70 points can, in large parts, be explained away by a bad night shooting the basketball. And when you get down in FIBA basketball, margins that can be easily wilted away in the NBA are a steeper mountain to climb. With an impotent offence shadowing their searching defence, the Boomers didn’t have much of a chance on this night.
“I think we have had two good camps so far, but we have definitely got a lot of room to improve,” said Dellavedova postgame. “They were running their stuff and knew where their looks were coming from. I think we will continue to get better. We got some better looks in the second half, but we need to start better as well.”
The Boomers have repeatedly spoken of the need to gain conditioning and chemistry ahead of the World Cup. These two games in Perth are the first chance to conquer both missions against an external force.
Lemanis and his coaching staff deployed what can only be described as a vanilla game plan, against an opponent that will stand between the Boomers and the medal round in China. Aron Baynes was held out of tonight’s game. Playing rotations and player groupings were utilised for the first time. Players like Jonah Bolden and Jock Landale - whose 18 points was the Boomers' best scorer - made their national team debut. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit that can be cleaned up. This team has the talent and mental aptitude to wipe everything away with a dominant showing in the return bout tomorrow night. It’s now on them to do it.
Just like the selection of the twelve men who will represent the Boomers in China, history will judge this performance. Achieve a historical result at the World Cup and this defeat will be pointed to as a learning moment that was leveraged into greatness. Struggle at the World Cup? Well, we all know how that ends, and this will be seen as just the beginning.