Even before the FIBA 2019 World Cup tipped off, there was a groundswell of quiet optimism about this Boomers outfit.
At international tournaments, cohesion and experience is paramount. Even missing a host of NBA talent, that is something Australia has in swathes, and it is something they will need to keep falling back on if they are to progress deep into the medal rounds.
Three wins from three starts is the perfect start. It’s historic, too. The Australian Boomers have never achieved a feat like this at a World Cup. However, this is tournament play. In NBA terms, the Boomers have finished a very successful regular season. Should the switch be off for two games, a couple of losses is all it takes for the 3-0 start to be rewritten as failure.
With all that in mind, let’s analyse what we’ve learnt from the Boomers to date, what lies ahead in Nanjing and beyond.
1. The good, the bad and the ugly
What we’ve seen through their first three games is the Boomers’ ‘basketball spectrum.’
On one end of the measuring stick, Patty Mills, Joe Ingles and Andrew Bogut have formed some very, very pretty offence at times. Chris Goulding has been an absolute gem off the bench, and his bursts on both ends have been valuable. He looks totally comfortable on the international stage. Aron Baynes started slowly in the exhibition games, but was enormous against Lithuania, whilst Nick Kay has defied critics, contributing solid minutes when called upon by Andrej Lemanis to provide some physicality and non-negotiables down low.
When those parts all hum together, poetry happens.
The ball fizzes around from corner to corner. Everyone shoots the lights out for extended periods of time. Andrew Bogut morphs into the best passing big man in the tournament, and the Boomers play stingy, lockdown defence that suffocates opposing teams. Prime examples of this came in the third quarter against Senegal, the first quarter against Lithuania, and the fourth quarter against Canada – in this tournament alone.
However, the other end is not so easy to write about.
The Boomers’ pick-and-roll and dribble hand off defence has been average at best, and downright poor at times. Conservative defensive coverage exposed the midrange for opponents willing to exploit that shot on many occasions. The lack of athleticism and length at the wings hasn’t been their kryptonite yet, but against deeper units with more to play for, any sniff of a weakness or any chink in the armour will be sought out and built upon.
That is what Australia’s tournament really hinges upon. If the work on the defensive end is consistent, the offense will take care of itself. Expect Mitch Creek to see more minutes in the games to come. His length and defensive tenacity when guarding opposing wings and on pick and roll plays has been invaluable in his short cameos to date.
2. Scoring the basketball
The Boomers aren’t a high-scoring unit, but they have found success with a steady diet of Joe Ingles acting the primary ball handler, especially on pick and roll plays involving Bogut, Landale or Baynes. It’s simple, but it has been extremely effective to date. Australia looked rattled in the early games when the three-point shot wasn’t falling, but Ingles has helped assert normality and a sense of calm on the floor.
We’ve seen how our smaller shooters (Goulding, Mills) can be denied against athletic, quick defensive units – Senegal was a prime example, and also in patches against USA in the warmup games. Thursday night’s game against Lithuania showed us how important three-point shooting is to Australia’s scoring punch, especially when it comes from our big men (Landale, Baynes and even Kay). Forcing defenders to scramble and cover outside shooters, stretching defences and leaving areas of the lane open for the highlight dunks and alley-oops we have been treated to. Couple that with well-honed chemistry within the core of Ingles, Baynes, Bogut, Mills and Dellavedova, and the Boomers have been able to execute often and well, finding open teammates for the opportunities.
The winning formula for the Boomers in the next stage and beyond, might really well be an quirky LeBron-esque setup. Ingles plays point forward, both guards work off-ball to get shooting opportunities from backscreens courtesy of the bigs, who then pop or roll depending on the read. Bogut’s not a shooter, but his unscripted playmaking adds another pinch of creativity to the team’s offence.
3. Looking after the basketball
And now, for Australia’s biggest problem. Turnovers.
Taking care of the basketball and limiting mistakes needs to be number one, in bold, underlined in red, on Lemanis’ whiteboard at shootaround.
In the group stage so far, the Boomers had their least amount of turnovers against Canada, with 13 (to Canada’s 11). Against Senegal, they had 16 (to Senegal’s seven), and playing Lithuania, the team had 15 (to Lithuania’s six). Australia has been consistently outscored by their opponents on fast break points and points from turnovers.
The answer likely lies in the way offence is executed, especially in the passes that at times look a bit too forced. Feeds to rolling bigs through congested passing lanes, cross-court passes that end up being a bit off, every little thing increases the opportunity for a rogue hand or smart steal from an opposing defender.
Legitimate reasons or not, Australia will not challenge for gold –or even a medal– if that trend doesn’t change, and quickly.
First up is the Dominican Republic this Saturday (7 September).
If you were looking at historical head to head matchups as an indication of form, I wouldn’t bother. The two teams have only clashed once, back in 1978, and Australia prevailed 74-72 on that occasion.
Fast forward to now, and there’s one key area that the Boomers can exploit against their South American counterparts – the Dominican Republic really struggles to score. In a pool with France, Germany and Jordan, they managed a tick under 69ppg as a team, and had their difficulties from beyond – shooting the three at 32%.
They, like Australia, tend to play a slower style of offence, and look to take the ball to the rim with their front court heavy rotations. With the Boomers’ relative lack of athleticism and speed, this play style works right into their hands.
Whilst there will be countless words penned about matchups and key areas for this contest over the next 48 hours, from an optics perspective, this is the clear advantage the Boomers possess.
Australian Boomers schedule for 2019 FIBA World Cup: (All times AEST)
September 7: Boomers
vs Dominican Republic (6:00pm)
September 9: Boomers vs France (10:00pm)
September 10 & 11: Quarter-Finals
September 13: Semi-Finals
September 15: Medal Games