Written for NBL.com.au by Tom Hersz
France v Australia Boomers
When: 10.00pm (AEST), Monday 9 September
Where: Gymnasium of Youth Olympic Games Sport Park, Nanjing, China
Broadcast: Fox Sports More; Kayo Sports
In what was a must-win game, the Boomers did it tough against a scrappy Dominican Republic team, but did enough to get the result they needed.
“It’s always good to firstly come away with a win,” Andrej Lemanis said post-game.
“We always knew it was going to be a tough game for a couple of reasons. Firstly just the way the Dominican Republic play, they play an aggressive style of basketball and get after you. They make moving offensively difficult at times.
“The other reality is that we understand playing under this new format is that they were playing for their World Cup survival tonight so there’s a desperation that comes with that, just as when we played Senegal.”
Heading into the final game of the second round with a 4-0 record says something about this team. They may not have always looked dominant, but no team has been able to stop them yet.
What lies ahead is a showdown that could have massive implications for their medal chances in China, so both teams will be desperate in this one.
The winner will top Group L and face the second placed team from Group K. The loser’s fate is looking a lot less palatable as a date with Team USA in the first knockout game (quarterfinal round) likely awaits if results go to form.
The Boomers will therefore be looking to continue their good form and hope they can once again do enough to win and move on.
Last time they met
It was the opening game of the 2016 Olympic Tournament and a stacked Boomers team faced their first test in France. Aron Baynes got the team rolling with the first 4 points as the Boomers built a 9-point lead early and then never trailed.
The end result was a statement to the competition that the Boomers were legitimate and ready to contend for a medal. Their 87-66 win was a sign of two things; how well the Boomers were playing as a group, and that the ageing French team may be past their best.
Patty Mills led the Boomers with 21 points and 5 assists; Andrew Bogut had 18 points on 9-10 shooting, Aron Baynes had 14 points and 8 rebounds, while Matthew Dellavedova had 10 assists and 3 steals.
Tony Parker had 18 points to lead the French, while Rudy Gobert was held to 5 points and 7 rebounds but blocked 3 shots.
Men’s Basketball in France evolved in the late 1990s, leading to a surprise silver medal at the 2000 Olympics. It then got stronger in the last decade, peaking with a EuroBasket title in 2013 and a third-place finish at the 2014 World Cup in Spain.
After a disappointing quarterfinals exit in Rio and the retirement of greats like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, the French are a rejuvenated outfit here in China. They have not lost a game yet, taking care of business in the first round against Germany (78-74) and then embarrassing Jordan (103-64) and the Dominicans (90-56).
But it was their performance on Saturday night that was most impressive, and in many ways a carbon copy of Australia’s versus the same opponent.
France jumped Lithuania early with crisp ball movement, hot shooting and a solid interior presence. Their guards and wings dominating offensively, while their bigs controlled the paint.
A 12-point lead at quarter time giving the French a buffer that the Lithuanians struggled to peg back in either the second or third quarters.
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) September 7, 2019
Nic Batum and Evan Fournier were hot early and then Nando De Colo got involved. Foul trouble somewhat limited Rudy Gobert’s impact in the first half and his ability to slow down Jonas Valanciunas, who did his best to keep his team in the game and the tournament.
France led by 11 points after three quarters and had met every challenge thrown at them to that point. But as they did versus Australia, the Lithuanians saved their best for the fourth quarter.
They came on strong, going on a 15-3 run to start the quarter and take the lead inside the final five minutes of the game. Sound familiar? And as Patty Mills did for the Boomers, Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo put their team on their backs and got buckets to weather the storm and re-take the lead.
Fournier and De Colo each made big shots, none bigger than De Colo’s fadeaway jump shot with 15 seconds left to extend the margin to three points; the final margin of the game.
France survived 78-75, qualified for the quarterfinals and eliminated Lithuania in the process.
Afterwards, Head Coach Vincent Collet was not aware of the controversy surrounding the officiating that had Lithuanian Coach Dainius Adomaitis fuming afterwards.
“We started the game the right way until halftime,” Collet said.
“I was very happy with our performance. We had control (in the first half) over the defensive rebound, which we knew before the game would be a big key.
“It was more difficult after that, which is one of the reasons why they came back. We made two big shots from Nando and Evan but I think when you see the whole game that we deserved the win.”
Fournier made big shots all game on his way to 24 points, while De Colo had 21 points along with 4 assists. They combined to go 5-11 on threes, supported by Batum who had 12 points and 3 blocks.
Through four games, the team is hitting a whopping 48.8% from deep, the best mark in the tournament, making 9.8 triples per game. They’re shooting 52.4% overall (ranking 2nd) and – unsurprisingly with Gobert – also rank second in blocks.
Australia had another chance to eat into the points differential advantage that France and Lithuania had over them, but the main goal was just to win. They achieved the latter but the former eluded them, again.
As was the case against Senegal, the athleticism and aggressive style of the Dominican Republic team was difficult to contain. The Dominicans were playing with nothing to lose – their tournament life on the line – and it showed.
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) September 7, 2019
The Boomers were in front, but never comfortable and as has been the case all tournament, turnovers plagued them once more.
“I thought the ball stuck at times and that led to the 16 turnovers, which is frustrating,” Lemanis explained post-game.
“You build a bit of momentum and you get a stop and it’s like, ‘damn, we just turned it over.’”
The Boomers led by 5 points after one quarter, by just 2 at halftime and again by 5 points at the final break.
“It was one of those games where it was right there and you expect the floodgates to open and they didn’t,” said Lemanis.
In fact, the Dominicans kept coming in the fourth, cutting the margin to 3 points early and then back to four points before a technical foul on Victor Liz sparked an 11-4 Boomers run that looked to have put the game away.
But they weren’t done yet, cutting it to 6 points again on a few occasions before the Boomers pushed the margin again to 12 points behind some big fourth quarter plays from Jock Landale and Patty Mills; the Dominicans scoring late for a final score of 82-76.
Mills once again led the way with 19 points, but he also dished 9 assists; many of those to Landale who came alive in the fourth after struggling early. Landale finished with 13 points including 2 big threes down the stretch, while Chris Goulding had 15 points off the bench. Aron Baynes was on his way to another big game (10 points, 5 rebounds) before fouling out in the third quarter.
“We all know it was just an okay performance,” said Landale.
“We’ve got stuff to build on, but I think we’ll be ready when the time comes.”
That time is now for the Boomers with so much at stake against France.
The Boomers are now averaging 14 turnovers per game; the second worst mark of any team in the second round. It has held them back at times from running away with games, but has not yet cost them a game.
However it’s an issue that could do just that if it continues. France has forced 65 turnovers in their four games, while committing 48 themselves. By contrast, the Boomers have forced just 35 turnovers from opponents; just 8.75 per game.
Those extra possessions could decide the game. If they can control the ball, the Boomers have all the tools to beat France.
They’re averaging more points, rebounds (offensive and defensive) and assists than France; they’re shooting better from the free-throw line and two-point range, and have made more total three-pointers despite France owning the better clip. The Boomers have also averaged nearly four less fouls per game, which could be big down the stretch.
And despite both teams looking different to when they met in Rio in 2016, that convincing win should give the Boomers a slight mental edge going in.
Players to Watch – France
Evan Fournier: The Orlando Magic wing leads France with 18.3 points per game, along with 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 steals. He’s also hitting 46.2% from deep and has been a handful for opponents. He seems to get up for bigger games too, having poured in 26 points in their opening win over Germany. Fournier can score in a variety of ways, can create his own shot, push in transition and find open teammates. He is in many ways their Patty Mills and that matchup should be fascinating to watch.
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) September 7, 2019
Nando De Colo: Despite coming off the bench behind young New York Knicks guard Frank Nkilitina, De Colo has been tremendous for Collet’s men. The former NBA guard who now stars for Fenerbahçe in Turkey, struggled in their opening game but has averaged 18.3 points and 5 assists over the past three, while hitting 7-13 from deep and 56% overall. He can play anywhere from 1 to 3 and has been a steadying influence with the second unit, as well as closing games down the stretch.
Rudy Gobert: If the French have improved since Rio, so has Gobert. He has emerged for the Utah Jazz as an All-NBA level centre who has now won back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year honours. In China, he’s doing much the same in manning the paint, protecting the rim (2.3 blocks per game) and controlling the boards (9.5 per game). The Stifle Tower, as he’s known, is going to be a challenge for Baynes and Andrew Bogut. Keeping him off the offensive glass will be important too, but after how they combined to take Valanciunas out of the game on Thursday, Gobert is not someone they can’t overcome.
Players to Watch – Australia
Joe Ingles: We’ve seen what Gobert’s teammate, Ingles, is capable of in this tournament. He dominated the first two games to the tune of 15 points, 7.5 rebounds and 9 assists, while hitting at 50% from deep and 59% overall. Unfortunately he’s not maintained that production the past two games. Combined, Ingles has scored just 4 points on 1-9 FGs, going 0-4 from deep. He has still impacted those games with 12 rebounds, 11 assists and 4 steals but the Boomers are going to need to him to be more aggressive in looking for his own shot than he has been, if only to keep France’s defence honest and open things up for others. Look for Ingles, who will be matched up on Batum, to attack more and help Patty Mills share the scoring load.
Jock Landale: Like with any young player in their first big tournament, there have been some ups and downs for Landale. He played well in the opener against Canada, struggled against Senegal, was solid against Lithuania, and then looked out of sorts against the Dominicans until he roared home with a 10-point final quarter. He played some centre late in that one, which seemed to suit him. Landale has shown the ability to stretch the floor, hitting 4-6 3FGs over the past two games, while also running hard in transition. He has a size advantage over Amath M’Baye and will need to use it to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Matthew Dellavedova: Delly has had a strong tournament so far. After his hot start against Canada, his scoring has slowed, but he’s still dropping dimes at a solid rate (19 assists over his past three games), crashing the defensive boards (4 per game) and playing solid defence. He’s slowed the turnovers and is still hitting from deep (4-9 3FGs in past two games); happy to stick open shots when he gets them. Delly will be needed to do a little of everything against France, but it starts on the defensive end where he’ll have the tough task of staying with both Frank Ntilikina and then De Colo. If he can limit their impact and set up his own teammates, he’ll have done his job.
The X-Factors: If the French team have one advantage over the Boomers, it’s athleticism; something that both Senegal and the Dominicans bothered the Boomers with. One player who is still developing but has the athleticism to create issues for Australia, is Frank Ntilikina. The 2017 lottery pick of the New York Knicks is starting for France, essentially taking the spot that Thomas Huertel used to own. His impact has been up and down through the first four games and he struggled against Lithuania on Saturday, but the man they call Frankie Smokes is capable of impacting games with his length and agility.
“He’s the future of the team,” said Batum of Ntilikina recently.
Collet, who coached Ntilikina in Strasbourg prior to his move to New York, also sees the importance of him producing for this team: “It’s important for us that he can be a real threat. We have some offensive leaders but we need him also to be more aggressive like that.”
It seems strange to call your starting centre an x-factor, but that is what Aron Baynes is right now for the Boomers. He is the missing ingredient that can turn them from a good team to a great team, when he’s switched on. We saw his best against Lithuania when he did a number on Valanciunas and showed his entire offensive repertoire. But then we saw some volatility against Dominican Republic as Baynes picked up some cheap fouls and then ended his night early with a technical foul. That is not really characteristic of Baynes who usually saves his emotional outbursts for celebrations following big plays. If that’s what he brings against France, the Boomers will be in really good shape.
— ESPN Australia & NZ (@ESPNAusNZ) September 7, 2019
What’s at Stake?
Throw away points differentials and head to head records. This game is simply about who wins. And if the results in Group K go to plan, then the prize for winning this game, in addition to topping Group L, is NOT meeting Team USA in the knockout quarterfinals.
Whether you think the Americans are beatable or not, you’d rather take that chance with a medal on the line, not at this stage of the tournament. So facing one of the Czech Republic, Brazil or Greece seems more palatable in terms of getting to that medal round.
“We’re trying to get eight wins,” Andrew Bogut told Fox Sports Australia on Sunday.
“We’re at four right now, and I believe eight gets a gold medal.”
Of course a loss is not the end of the world for either team, as both will advance to the quarterfinals round regardless, but avoiding Team USA at that stage would certainly be preferable.
As tough as the Lithuania game was, this is the Boomers biggest test to date. The French are a great matchup for Australia as they have similar depth, size and shooting ability along with a number of very experienced international campaigners.
They’ve been more impressive to date, putting away the Dominicans and Jordan convincingly and will go into this game as slight favourites with the bookmakers, but the French had the same struggles with Lithuania as the Boomers did.
“France are a very good basketball team,” Lemanis said.
“They’re a matchup we’re looking forward to. They’re long, athletic, they’re good defensively, they execute offensively very well; well-drilled, well-coached.
“In many ways, we see them playing a lot like ourselves in the way they share the ball, hang their hat on the defensive end.”
If Dellavedova and Mills can keep the talented French backcourt honest and Ingles can contribute a little more offensively while also containing Batum, then it may come down to a battle of the bigs.
Having both Baynes and Bogut to throw at Gobert as the Boomers did against Valanciunas is a plus. Landale, Kay and Creek can all impact the game against the less talented French forwards, so Australia should go in with a lot of confidence.
The Boomers biggest challenge may be themselves. They’ll need to contain their turnovers to get extra possessions and make adjustments to limit the athleticism gap, plus keep the defensive pressure on.
France may try to junk things up with some zone as they did briefly against Lithuania, but we know this Boomers team has the ball movement to counter that and enough talent overall to beat France.
They did it convincingly in Rio, but it won’t be that easy this time. Australia by 6 points.