Written for NBL.com.au by Tom Hersz
Australia Boomers v France
When: 6.00pm (AEST), Sunday 15 September
Where: Wukesong Sport Arena, Beijing, China
Broadcast: Fox Sports More; Kayo Sports
Character comes in many forms.
For the Boomers, their character will be tested in one of the cruellest ways imaginable tonight after coming so close to fulfilling a goal; one that has eluded this nation.
A World Cup was within their grasp, but the basketball gods had other ideas on Friday night leaving the Boomers devastated once again at the hands of Spain.
It was a heroic effort but that doesn’t mean much right now. Instead, this group needs to find a way to re-focus their attention, for they can still achieve something historic tonight in Beijing.
No Boomers team has ever won a medal – of any colour – at a major FIBA tournament and this team still has a shot at changing that.
“Definitely came here for Gold and the way the boys played represented that, but it’s not over; the FIBA World Cup’s not over,” Nick Kay said after the semi-final loss.
“We’ve still got another chance to win our first medal and this is going to be a great opportunity to see how the group responds to a little bit of adversity. We’ve got a lot of guys in that locker room who’ve been through this a lot and we’re going to come out in this next game and fight, and do everything we can to make sure we come home with that medal.”
The Boomers have been in this situation before. Four times they’ve played off for a Bronze medal at the Olympics and four times they’ve walked away empty-handed. This group’s resilience and focus seems different somehow.
They’ve never been in a medal game at a World Cup or World Championships, but after the devastation of Rio, several in this group will want to avoid that feeling for even a minute longer.
Coming home with a Bronze medal is no consolation prize. It would be just reward for an amazing run in China and this nation would celebrate it. After all, it would be a historic moment.
40 minutes of winning basketball against a familiar opponent stands in their way.
Last time they met
It was only six short days ago.
The Boomers, trying to avoid a quarterfinal matchup with Team USA and remain undefeated, met a French team with exactly the same goal.
In a seesawing game where there were 15 lead changes and the score was tied 17 times, it looked at one point that the French had control. They built a 9-point lead in the third quarter, but the Boomers, as they’d done every time they were challenged, did not get at all rattled.
Back-to-back threes from Ingles and Mills trimmed the lead to 3 points and just as quickly as it seemed the Boomers were struggling, it was a game again.
The fourth quarter was epic. Neither team could build an advantage. Both teams turned up the defence and Aron Baynes in particular put his body on the line several times, taking three huge charges to give the Aussies a chance.
With two minutes left, scores were still tied, but it was the Boomers who made enough plays down the stretch, including an incredible steal by Mills in the dying seconds, up by just one-point, to seal the win. The final score of 100-98 was a fitting end to a great contest and it was the Boomers who avoided Team USA in the knockout quarterfinal.
Mills led the way with 30 points (10-18 FGs) and 3 assists. Ingles put up 23 points, while Baynes was huge with 21 points (5-6 3FGs), along with 5 rebounds.
Evan Fournier led the French with 31 points and 6 rebounds. Nando De Colo had 26 points, while Rudy Gobert was held to 8 points and 4 rebounds before fouling out within the final minute.
What’s happened since?
In the matchup the Boomers were desperate to avoid, France took on Team USA in a knockout quarterfinal. Only no one gave Les Bleus the memo that said their tournament was to end that night.
Instead, they came out aggressive, using their size advantage and an effective pick and roll offence to generate good shots and started to build a lead in the second quarter. At halftime it was a 6-point margin, with the underdogs feeling confident.
The French pushed the margin out to ten points in the third before Team USA found some offensive rhythm. A 17-7 run tied the game, before the Americans edged in front by three points at the final break.
In the final period, USA extended their lead to 7 points and it seemed the French were done for, but they missed that memo too. Frank Ntilikina – the supposed NBA bust – started to make plays, finding De Colo and Gobert before scoring himself. He then hit a three with 4:35 to play to tie the game at 76 points apiece.
Fournier then scored and found Gobert, before hitting Ntilikina for another jumper and it was France, capping a 15-4 run, who led by 6 points with less than two minutes to play. From there, France made more plays than the Americans whose lack of international experience was telling.
The French caused the upset of the tournament, knocking out USA in an 89-79 win, leaving Gregg Popovich to wonder what just happened and the remaining four teams to all believe they could win the Gold.
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) September 11, 2019
“It’s a huge win, and they are a very talented team,” Gobert said after the triumphant win.
“It doesn’t mean much if you don’t win the Gold, but it’s still something that will go down as one of the biggest wins of my career and one of the biggest wins in French basketball for sure.”
Two nights later in the second of the semi-finals, France faced an Argentinian team that came into this tournament as an unknown quantity. Led by former NBA veteran Luis Scola and Real Madrid teammates Facundo Campazzo and Gabriel Deck, they seemingly didn’t have the cattle to push for a medal.
Scola, now 39 years old, has been playing in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) the past two years and clearly felt right at home in China during this tournament as he set about showing the French that Argentina belonged there as much as anyone.
He attacked in transition early and showed his array of post-moves as his team built a lead in the first quarter. The French pegged it back in the second to edge in front before an 8-0 run by the South Americans put them back in control.
They would never relinquish the lead again, pushing it out to double digits in the third and then making enough plays to never let France back into the game. Argentina booked their trip to the Gold Medal game with an 80-66 win behind an ageless performance from Scola with 28 points and 13 rebounds.
Fournier and Ntilikina each had 16 points for France, while Gobert and Nic Batum were both held to 3 points leaving them to think about salvaging their tournament with a Bronze medal.
“They were just the better team tonight,” said Gobert.
“From the first to the last minute, they were more aggressive and played more as a team. They jumped the passing lanes and pushed us out of our spots. It was complete domination.”
By contrast, Australia got the matchup they wanted in the quarterfinals against the Czech Republic. However it wasn’t necessarily any easier than facing Team USA given the expectation they would win.
The Czechs had nothing to lose and played that way, while the Boomers came out tight. Patty Mills kept his team settled though, scoring 13 of their first 15 points with the game tied after one quarter.
The second period was much of the same as the Boomers not named Mills were still struggling to score consistently and they led by just three at the main break.
Mills had 16 points at halftime on 6 for 9 shooting, while the rest his teammates had 17 points on just 8-30 shooting.
In the third quarter, Andrew Bogut inserted himself in the game, instigating a 15-5 run to push the margin to 15 points at the final break.
The Czech’s made a push with a 7-0 run to start the 4th, but Bogut and Mills made some big plays to seal an 82-70 win for the Boomers and get them to the semi-finals for the first time ever at a FIBA World Cup.
Mills finished with 24 points (6-9 3FGs) and 6 assists. Bogut had 10 points, 3 assists and 3 in just 12 minutes, while Chris Goulding had 14 points.
“I’m pleased with the game. They’re a good basketball team, and we have a lot of respect for the way they played in this tournament,” said Andrej Lemanis.
The Boomers had set up a rematch with Spain, the team that got between them and a Bronze medal in Rio three years earlier. It was a chance at retribution, but more importantly, a game that could guarantee the Boomers their first ever medal with a win.
Lemanis and his coaching staff drew up a great game plan and by halftime, it had started to bear fruit. The Boomers were executing defensively, giving up two-point jump shots to prevent threes and shots at the rim, and the Spaniards had managed only 32 points at the main break.
Of course the Boomers were far from lighting it up, having been limited to just 37 points themselves, but they were in front.
In the third, the Boomers continued to clamp down defensively and slowly pushed out their lead to double digits, but Spain came right back and it was a 4-point game with one quarter remaining. Early in the fourth, Australia again looked like they were edging away as they pushed the margin to 8 points, but they could not put Spain away.
A Sergio Llull layup cut the margin to 2 points with 3:44 to play and it seemed as though the schedule quirk that gave the Spaniards an extra day of rest may have been becoming a factor.
Mills pushed it back to 5 points, before the Boomers turnover ills reared their ugly heads again. Compounding that was their inability to make a shot, with no field goals in the final four and half minutes.
A controversial foul on Bogut with 8 seconds to play gave Marc Gasol two free throws and Spain their first lead since the opening period.
But Mills then drew one down the other end, also questionable, putting him on the line for two of his own and a chance to put the Boomers back in front with less than 5 seconds to play. Mills made the first to tie the game, but the second rimmed out, putting our medal hopes on hold as the game headed to overtime.
In the first extra period, Spain jumped out to a 5-point lead, but the Boomers were not done yet, quickly tying it up again. The Aussies then took the lead on two Mills free throws with 14 seconds remaining, before Gasol again tied it up. Dellavedova’s buzzer beating attempt missed, extending the game by an extra five minutes.
All tournament long, the Boomers have found ways to overcome adversity; to fight through when things got tough or they were challenged. Unfortunately, that ended in the second overtime period of the semi-final on Friday night.
After a Bogut tip-in gave Australia the lead, Spain went on a 10-0 run, while their opponents couldn’t buy a bucket. To make matters worse, Dellavedova was forced from the game with 2:58 to play.
“Delly got a cramp on the back end,” Lemanis explained.
“He’s our point guard and organiser and that obviously impacted us in that area; that’s one of those things right?”
A Baynes three with 1:53 left gave the Boomers hope before more turnovers and some Marc Gasol brilliance ensured it would be Spain playing for Gold, leaving the Boomers to wonder what went wrong and if they’d ever beat this team. Spain ultimately winning 95-88.
Mills led all scorers with 34 points, while Marc Gasol finished with 33 points for Spain. Nick Kay (16 points, 11 rebounds including 7 o-rebs) and Ricky Rubio (19 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds) were both huge for their respective teams as well.
Heartbreak for the Boomers ?
Spain come home strong in double OT and book their spot in the #FIBAWC Championship game.
— NBL (@NBL) September 13, 2019
In the end, despite a dominant effort on the boards (57-43), including 20 on the offensive end, the Boomers 22 turnovers did them no favours. They battled gallantly, but still need one more win to get on that podium tonight.
Like in Rio, the Spaniards know they escaped with one and were full of praise for the way the Boomers pushed them in the game.
“I want to congratulate Australia team,” Head Coach Sergio Scariolo said.
“They had an awesome game; they fought until the very, very last thing. We know that they are [a] competitive, strong, talented, well-coached team and it’s a nice rivalry between these two teams. Fortunately two times we end up winning, but both times [the] game was so close that you’ve got to give them credit for this.”
Lemanis, visibly dejected at the post-game press conference, tried to put on a brave face about how his team had played.
“That was a hell of a game of basketball,” he said.
“It was fun to be involved with and really proud of our team and the way we got after it. You certainly can’t question the effort and intensity with which we played and the manner with which we played. It was good, fun basketball.
“It’s tough to lose, there’s no doubt it’s tough to lose but Spain’s also a good basketball team and played well, you know? It comes down to a couple of plays here or there and that’s the way it goes.
“We’ve gotta now ensure that we find a way to let this one go in the next 24 hours and come out and be ready to play with that same intensity on Sunday.”
Stats Leaders – France
Points: Fournier (20.3), De Colo (16.1), Gobert (11.3)
Rebounds: Gobert (9.9), Batum (3.7), Fournier (3.6)
Assists: De Colo (3.4), Fournier (3.4), Albicy (2.7)
Team Stats – France
Points: 86.0 per game
Stats Leaders – Australia
Points: Mills (23.9), Baynes (12.3), Dellavedova (9.6)
Rebounds: Ingles (6.3), Bogut (6.0), Baynes (5.7)
Assists: Dellavedova (6.4), Ingles (6.0), Mills (4.1)
Team Stats – Australia
Points: 89.7 per game
How this game will be won?
The Boomers have somewhat of a blueprint for beating France by virtue of having done so just six days ago. In that one, they controlled the boards, punished Gobert who stayed at home defensively by using Baynes as a stretch five, put their bodies on the line defensively to allow nothing easy, and were aggressive in attacking the French defence and getting to the line.
Australia attempted 24 free throws and drew 23 fouls on France, both stats in favour of the Boomers, but the most telling was allowing only 2 offensive boards to a team that averages over 8 per game. That allowed them to counter their turnovers, by not conceding extra possessions.
The pace of that game was very up-tempo, which suits both teams. Controlling the pace and the time of possession will be important if the Boomers are going to limit the French team’s scoring opportunities.
Argentina ran the French off the three-point line (7-31 3FGs) on Friday night; the Boomers preferring to cut off deep attempts and push their opponents into two-point range instead. The French were hot from three in the group phases, but have hit just 15-54 (27.8%) from there in the two knockout games, so Lemanis may want to consider switching their coverage a little to get a hand in their face and allow them to shoot.
The concern with that is two-fold. Firstly, they could easily get hot again, with multiple players capable of hitting from deep. The second issue is long shot attempts breed long rebounds, negating the Boomers advantage on the glass. It will be an interesting decision for the Australian coaching staff to make and may require an in-game adjustment if the scout isn’t working.
Of course their defence can only get them so far and one of the Boomers biggest issues against both the Czech Republic and Spain, was generating enough points. Part of the issue has been the well-documented propensity for turnovers, which have prevented the Boomers from extending leads. But more recently, it has been the inability for players not named Patty Mills to score consistently.
Mills – a frontrunner for tournament MVP – has been incredible, scoring 29.3 points per game over their past three contests, but the Boomers need others to step up.
— NBA (@NBA) September 13, 2019
Joe Ingles was very tentative on his way to just 4 points against Spain, going 1 for 9 and never looking like he wanted to shoot. Since going 9-13 from the field including 6-10 from deep against Canada, Dellavedova has shot just 12-47 (25.5%) since, connecting on 8 from 24 three-point attempts.
Similarly, after scoring in double digits in each of the first five games including 21 points against France, Baynes has scored a total of 12 points in the two finals games, failing to attempt a two-point field goal against Spain. Chris Goulding failed to score against France last time. The Boomers will need more from both if they are to come away with the win.
This is not the time for anyone to be tentative. You only get so many chances at a medal in these tournaments and after having one snatched from them in Rio, these guys will need to go out and grab this one by the proverbial horns because France isn’t going to lay down and hand it to them.
Finally, the other advantage the Boomers have is their togetherness; the Boomers spirit as it’s been described. France has only three players that were in Rio, while the Boomers have six. They also have five guys that played a lot together through the qualifying windows and this group has cohesion from those shared experiences in the past.
Nick Kay spoke about that after Friday’s loss to Spain in terms of how this team plays for each other due to the tight bond they have.
“Sometimes it doesn’t always go your way, but the way the boys fought tonight was credit to the mateship and brotherhood this group’s got; the way we’ve developed as a group throughout this thing, it’s great to see and hopefully we can keep this going for the next game.”
While France has had success in the past, only Batum, Gobert and Fournier were on the Bronze medal winning team from the 2014 World Cup.
The Boomers are hurting right now and couple that with a desire to remedy their loss in Rio, things can go one of two ways tonight.
They can stay angry about the semi-final and crumble under the pressure, or they can re-focus and play the game of their lives, and finally get the reward this nation has craved for years.
1 more chance to write history. pic.twitter.com/vHoCaj4UHS
— Jock Landale (@JockLandale) September 14, 2019
Coming off a double-overtime game will be taxing physically, but then they will have had a few hours additional rest over their opponents who played the later semi-final fixture on Friday.
“The experience that we had in Rio and that feeling of what it felt like to finish fourth when we had a chance to win a Bronze and seeing how much that hurt everybody, I have good confidence that this group will be able to well and truly re-focus, get our energy back, recover the right way and handle it in the normal, professional manner in which they do, and come out with a bit of a fire in the belly on Sunday to deliver a medal,” Lemanis said.
They clearly have the talent to beat this team as they’ve done it already. Do they have the mental fortitude? I’m tipping they do and once again, this nation will be right behind our Boomers as they go out to make history.
Australia by 6 points.