Australia Boomers v USA Basketball
When: 7.30pm (AEST), Thursday 22 August and 2.00pm (AEST) Saturday 24 August
Where: Marvel Stadium, Docklands, Melbourne
Broadcast: SBS VICELAND; SBS On Demand
Possibly the biggest build up for a two-game basketball series is finally over. No matter your views on who will ultimately take the court for both teams, these games are going to be very special.
Sure, it’s a chance to send off our national team before they chase a medal at the FIBA World Cup in China and it’s also a chance to see a USA team full of NBA talent which basketball fans have craved since the 2001 Goodwill Games, but more than that, it will be a basketball experience like no other.
For the Boomers, it is the ultimate test of where they are as a group. The preparation to this point has not been without drama and setbacks as two replacement players have been needed since Andrej Lemanis first announced his final twelve-man roster just over two weeks ago.
And with expectations of a medal coming into camp, the pressure to show they can contend and challenge the best team they’ll face in China next month, is real and welcomed at this point.
Team USA faces its own pressures. Going into every major tournament as the favourite is one thing, but doing so when so many big names have pulled out means those that are left to represent the Stars and Stripes do not want to be the first team to fail in their quest for gold since the 2006 FIBA World Championships.
The Americans will be out to show at every opportunity that they are still the team to beat.
Where they’ve been
The lead up to this point for the Boomers has not been as smooth as they’d have liked. After losing Xavier Cooks last week in the lead up to their two-game series against Canada, Mitch Creek re-joined the squad. Despite that setback, the Boomers went into RAC Arena on Friday ready to put it all together and kick start their World Cup campaign.
What met them was a reality check that wasn’t expected. Canada, the very team Australia will face in the opening game of Group H play next month, embarrassed the Boomers by 20 points.
The Canadians jumped the Boomers early, getting out to a 10 point lead early in the first and again at halftime, before the Boomers started pegging them back. Some hot shooting from Patty Mills and strong interior play from Andrew Bogut and Jock Landale sparked a 21-6 run which tied the game, but the Boomers never got in front. In the fourth, Canada’s strong defence, which bothered Australia all night, held them to just 10 points, allowing the visitors to run out 20-point winners.
Mills led the way with 20 points and four assists, supported by Landale who had 18 points and eight rebounds to stake his claim on the starting four man role. Matthew Dellavedova was held scoreless on 0 for 9 shooting while Aron Baynes sat this one out.
The Boomers looked like a bunch of guys that hadn’t played in a while and a group that was playing its first game together, and that was disappointing for Andrej Lemanis.
“No one enjoys losing, that’s for sure, but you can’t lose sight of what this is and the process that we are going through,” Lemanis said post-game.
“We are building towards August 31 and we’ll take some things out of this game and we have a short turnaround to come out tomorrow and I expect us to play with an intensity and intent that is representative of Boomers basketball.”
The playing group echoed that sentiment.
“It was the first real game we’ve had together against other competition and we have a lot of new guys in this system,” acknowledged Landale.
“I think we had the training wheels on a little bit tonight, but they’ll definitely come off tomorrow and it has lit a fire under us,” Landale said.
The following night the Boomers did bounce back, defeating Canada 81-73 but it was far from easy. With Mills and Bogut sitting this one out and Baynes coming in, Chris Goulding got the start, but once again Canada led after the first quarter and again at half time, albeit by just three points.
The Boomers offence finally started clicking in the third quarter as they poured on 30 points and took the lead by one point at the final break. Jonah Bolden and Dellavedova sparked the run and then Australia built a double-digit lead in the fourth to close out the game.
Landale was again strong, leading all Boomers with 13 points and nine rebounds, Bolden had 12 points and Goulding had 10.
On Sunday though, the Boomers were faced with another unexpected setback as Bolden withdrew from the team, citing personal reasons. Lemanis and his staff were scrambling, needing another big body and with Brock Motum back in Europe already, two-time Olympian David Barlow was added to the roster.
Team USA began their training camp in Las Vegas earlier this month with a 15-man squad that was far from what USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo and Head Coach Gregg Popovich had originally envisaged. It has been a steady stream of withdrawals since the NBA offseason started and that continued with four of those fifteen also pulling their names from the squad.
Three others were subsequently elevated from the 14-member USA Select Team, with one of those, De’Aaron Fox, also withdrawing late, leaving 13 players here in Melbourne this week.
While much has been made of who isn’t here, the players who have made the trip and committed to Team USA are far from the third tier level of talent they’ve been made out to be.
Two were All-Stars last season (Kemba Walker who was a starter and Khris Middleton), with Walker making the All-NBA third team, while Marcus Smart made the All-NBA Defensive first team this past season.
It is true that most have not represented the USA in prior major tournaments, but this team will still go into the World Cup next month as heavy favourites.
Aside from intra-squad scrimmages or playing the select team, this roster has only played the one exhibition game to-date when they hosted Spain on Friday in Anaheim. Starting for Team USA were Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Middleton, Harrison Barnes and Mason Plumlee.
With a balanced attack, stingy defence and a dominant effort on the boards (42-20), the Americans controlled the game throughout, leading by double digits most of the way. They ran out 90-81 winners with four players scoring in double figures and 9 players scoring at least 7 points.
Mitchell led the way with 13 points; Middleton had 12, while Walker had 11 points and 8 assists.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) August 17, 2019
“The wins and losses are pretty unimportant at this time. It’s more about getting better, getting together, a group learning to execute together,” said Popovich post-game.
“I was most pleased with us defensively,” he added.
“I thought we did a good job for a new group communicating with each other. We rebounded well. We haven’t done that to date, consistently. I thought we had a good effort from everybody on board tonight.”
Team USA arrived in Melbourne on Monday and have been practicing each day at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, before heading out for team dinners each evening.
“Right now, we are just focused on getting our stuff down pat: the things we work on in practice, our plays, our defensive schemes, rotations, things like that,” Walker told Media on Monday.
“We’re trying to clean those things up, get better with those things. Of course, we want to win. Both teams want to win, I’m sure. We’ll go out there and battle as much as we can, but the main goal right now is to get better game-by-game, day-by-day, practice-by-practice, leading up to China.”
Both coaches are still tinkering with their line-ups and given the Boomers sat likely starters in both games against Canada, we don’t yet know what either team will look like when they take the floor tonight. Based on what we saw in the warm up games last weekend, it’s conceivable that these will be the starting matchups.
PG: Kemba Walker v Matthew Dellavedova
We’ve not seen the best of Delly so far in the lead up. He struggled in the opening game on Friday on both ends of the floor and while he was better on Saturday, he’ll need to be at another level tonight to contain Walker.
Dellavedova had a tough year last season. He fell out of the rotation with Milwaukee before a December trade saw him back with the Cavs where he’d previously had the most success. Delly posted career-best numbers on a per-36 minute basis with the Cavs and proved he still has a lot more to give at that level.
Walker is coming off a career year of his own where he finished third in total points, fifth in three-pointers made and eleventh in total assists. He averaged a career-high 25.6 points, made 3.2 threes per game and played all 82 games.
In short, Delly is going to have his work cut out for him to keep Walker in front of him and contest shots. On the other end, Dellavedova will need to be a lot more aggressive in trying to get into the paint and look to score as much as distribute.
SG: Donovan Mitchell v Patty Mills
Mitchell, who famously finished second to Ben Simmons in rookie of the year voting in 2018, is a bucket getter and that will be his role on this team too. The Jazz guard is adept at scoring off the dribble, on catch and shoot situations, or getting to the line.
We have arrived in Melbourne! @Joeingles7 & @Patty_Mills looking good at @BasketballAus training! More updates throughout the day ahead of tomorrow’s clash with @usabasketball which you’ll see LIVE, FREE & in HD on @SBSVICELAND pic.twitter.com/LiYWhTEjNv
— SBS Sport (@SBSSport) August 21, 2019
The one thing Mills has over Mitchell is experience; especially at the International level. Mills is a savvy veteran who knows how to expose holes in opposing defences, attack those holes, and get his teammates going. He led all scorers in London 2012 with 21.2ppg and averaged slightly more in Rio. He will need to give the Boomers close to that for them to have a chance.
SF: Khris Middleton v Joe Ingles
Mitchell’s teammate from Utah will go against him for the first time ever tonight and in Ingles, the Boomers have their lone NBA starter. Despite a drop in his three-point percentage last season, the Jazz wing still averaged career highs in points, assists and two-point percentage. He started all 82 games and has become the steady hand for an emerging Jazz team.
“I’m expecting a lot of trash talking from him, and I’m excited about it,” Mitchell said of Ingles.
“I think we’ve been looking forward to this ever since I told him I was playing for the U.S. team, so I’m excited. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Like I said, just go out and challenge each other and make each other better.”
Ingles’ opponent is one who is familiar to him. Middleton became an All-Star for the first time last season and helped carry the Milwaukee Bucks to the best regular season record in the league. He and Ingles squared off twice with the teams splitting the results.
Middleton, who struggled with the Molten balls at USA training camp, has now adjusted and will be a threat to score from all over the court with his quick release if he loses his opponent.
PF: Harrison Barnes v Jock Landale
Not your traditional four-man, Barnes is of the new breed of small-ball fours which will make for an interesting match up against the much taller Landale. At 6’8, Barnes plays more like a wing, but is strong enough to post-up when needed, or can face up and take bigger opponents off the dribble.
?? Buckets Down Under!
— NBA (@NBA) August 20, 2019
Barnes was traded to Sacramento at the deadline in February and struggled a little to find his role there, despite shooting at a higher clip than he did in Dallas. His role on this team is clear though. As someone who was in Rio, he is a leader and will be needed to defend, rebound and spread the floor.
Landale was the surprise package of the series against Canada, but really after his play at NBA Summer League with the Bucks, we shouldn’t have been as surprised as we were. Landale, who played with Partizan Belgrade last season and is signed on with Zalgiris in Lithuania for the coming season, scored in double figures in every game in Vegas and went off for 25 points and 10 rebounds against Philadelphia.
Against Canada, he was active, ran the floor, defended, rebounded and staked his claim for this starting role. He will need to play with no fear once more to give his Boomers a chance.
C: Mason Plumlee v Aron Baynes
Plumlee is not as big a name as some of his teammates, but he is the only member of this USA team that has been to a FIBA World Cup before, having won gold in 2014. Plumlee’s value comes in doing all the little things his team needs. He is solid defender, a strong offensive rebounder and a very good passer for a five man.
As Nikola Jokic’s back-up in Denver, he plays his role well. Plumlee doesn’t foul much and doesn’t turn it over meaning he is generally a plus when on the court.
Baynes, like Plumlee, is also an effective back-up five in the NBA. He is a very good defender, an above average free throw shooter and added a three-point shot to his game last season. Baynes will face three of his former Celtics teammates in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Smart.
“I played with Aron Baynes for two years with the Celtics, and he is one of my favorite guys to play with, favorite people. So, I’m excited to play against him for a change,” said Tatum.
Baynes will need to be aggressive and give the Boomers an interior presence to help slow the game down.
The Reserves: This is where Team USA’s talent will be an advantage. Coming off Popovich’s bench will likely be Tatum, Brown, Smart, Brook Lopez, Myles Turner, Kyle Kuzma, Joe Harris and Derrick White.
It’s conceivable that nearly every one of those players would start for the Boomers if they were Australian. It’s a well-balanced roster and while they’re a little light on point guard depth with the recent withdrawals of Fox and Kyle Lowry, they have a nice blend of athleticism, shooting and defensive ability at each position.
The Boomers will have to be especially wary of Turner and Lopez’s ability to stretch the floor, while they will not be able to turn it over with Tatum, Brown or Kuzma on the floor, because they will go the other way in transition in a flash and score.
For Australia, having guys like Andrew Bogut, Chris Goulding and Mitch Creek off the bench is a luxury. Guys that have played on big stages before, bring a different skillset, but also that unique Australian passion and pride to want to prove Australia can match it with the best in the world.
In Nathan Sobey, Nick Kay, Cameron Gliddon and recent addition David Barlow, there is a lot of international experience and cohesion playing together during FIBA qualifying windows. That will be important as they will get challenged in these games in ways they haven’t been challenged throughout that entire qualifying process.
“Barlow just fits in seamlessly, great teammate, knows the system, knows the boys so it’s been great so far and I’m sure it’s going to be great going forward,” Dellavedova said.
Barlow will not play tonight, but should be available on Saturday.
It will be tough to predict a win for the Boomers, but such is their belief that if they can truly learn from their mistakes against Canada and re-kindle the cohesion they showed both in Rio and throughout qualifying, they can certainly push Team USA.
That starts with defence, both in D-trans and also in the half court in pick and roll situations. They were not on the same page in Perth, so they will need to have made adjustments to keep the score low, as they will not want to get into a transition game with the Americans.
Offensively, the Boomers were able to generate good looks, but struggled to knock them down. If they take their chances, like they did in Rio, they’ll give themselves a shot in these games.
“They are one of the teams that can win the whole thing, without a doubt,” said Popovich on Wednesday.
“I’m not saying that because I’m here. It’s just a fact. They’ve been close for several years, and they are hungry. They are talented. Coach Lemanis does a good job, and they are a team. They are together. They know what they are doing. I think they are one of the top contenders without a doubt.”
High praise and while Team USA will be on alert, they will mostly be looking to get some game time together. They have these two games and then one more against Canada on Monday before flying out. It will be important for Popovich to figure out his rotations and for the team to get on the same page to ensure there are no slip-ups once they get to China.
55,000 people to see our Boomers take on some of the best in the world. What’s not to like?