Written for NBL.com.au by Tom Hersz
Spain v Australia Boomers
When: 6.00pm (AEST), Friday 13 September
Where: Wukesong Sport Arena, Beijing, China
Broadcast: Fox Sports More; Kayo Sports
Two more wins. That is all that stands in the way of the Boomers and history.
After taking care of business in the quarterfinal matchup against the Czech Republic on Wednesday night, the boys in green and gold have probably their best ever chance at winning the whole damn thing.
One more win would clinch a medal; winning tonight would guarantee a medal, but two more wins would write the names of twelve fine Australian men in the books of basketball history – forever.
And with France doing everyone left in the tournament a massive solid by knocking off Team USA, the gold medal really is anyone’s to win from here.
Standing in the Boomers way is a familiar foe in Spain; a game that will likely be the toughest the Boomers have faced all tournament, but one they are ready for.
They have been building to this point and have the entire nation behind them.
Last time they met
We all remember this one like it was yesterday.
2016 Rio Olympics, Bronze Medal Game, 1-point lead late and then heartbreak from two foul calls that will forever be questioned.
And make up for the two atrocious calls late in the Bronze Medal game vs. Spain in Rio. ??? https://t.co/qLW5DlJNjU
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) September 11, 2019
The final score is irrelevant, but the records will show a Spain victory 89-88. Patty Mills (who else?) led the way with 30 points and 3 steals, David Andersen had 15 points, while Brock Motum had 12 points, 6 rebounds and one huge dunk; but it wasn’t enough.
It is a game this Boomers team and Coach Andrej Lemanis are acutely aware of going into this semi-final matchup, but not one they wish to dwell on.
“I don’t think it needs to be brought up and spoken about specifically, cos everyone’s aware of it,” Lemanis said after defeating Czech Republic.
“And in many ways I think that hurt has driven just the passion and the focus for this particular tournament, and the commitment to it.
“So, one of the first things I heard when we walked back into the locker room was guys saying ‘job’s not done yet, job’s not done yet’, and so I think the focus is there and we just need to prepare for Spain as we prepare for everybody else.
“The assistant coaches have been unbelievable at putting scouts together, players have been great at following scouts; we need to come up with a game plan that we think can give us a chance for success and go out there and execute it.”
Results so far
Like Australia, Spain is undefeated in China. And like the Boomers, they’ve had some challenges along the way.
The Spaniards needed a big third quarter to put away Tunisia in their opening game. It was a similar story against Puerto Rico up next and they trailed in the fourth quarter against Iran before coming home strong to wrap up Group C play without a loss.
The second round followed a similar pattern. First up was a European rival in Italy. Spain trailed by a point at halftime, led by just two at the final break and managed to do enough to win by 7 points.
The final Group J game was a testament of how together this team is. Facing Serbia, who many picked as a lock to at least make it back to the gold medal game, if not win it all, Spain came out a little tight and trailed early. But from the second quarter on it was a different story.
They outscored the Serbs 32-17 in the 2nd to lead by 8 at halftime. Spain then extended to a double-digit lead in the third before clamping down defensively, frustrating the Serbs and maintaining that buffer to win by 12 points. They held Nikola Jokic to just 6 points, Nemanja Bjelica to 3 points and in the process, completely re-shaped the outlook of this tournament.
The loss would set up a potential semi-final matchup between Serbia and Team USA, which opened the other side of the bracket up completely.
In what became an easier quarterfinals opponent as a result, Spain took care of Poland also by 12 points, but controlled this game from in front most of the way. Rubio led the way with 19 points, 9 assists and 5 rebounds, while hitting 7-11 FGs and 3-4 from deep.
Spain’s top scorer has somewhat surprisingly been Rubio, who has shot incredibly well throughout. He’s averaging 15.3 points on 45.3% shooting, including an impressive 47.6% from downtown. He’s also leading the way in assists, unsurprisingly, with 5.5 dimes per game, to go along with 3.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals per contest.
Marc Gasol has also been very consistent, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists, but has struggled from three-point range, connecting on just 3-18 for the tournament. Gasol and Rubio have been supported by Juancho Hernangomez (10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds) and Victor Claver (9.5 points and 5.2 rebounds).
Wednesday night was a danger game for Australia as they went into their quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic expected to win but with everything to lose. By contrast, their opponents, who had already far exceeded expectations in China, had nothing to lose.
The way each team went about it, showed exactly that.
The Boomers came out tight, missing a lot of easy shots around the basket along with wide-open threes. Well that is, unless your name was Patty Mills. He came out completely differently, scoring 13 of the Boomers first 15 points and ensuring the Czech’s didn’t get too confident out there.
After one quarter, the game was tied and the Boomers were shooting under 40% from the field, as well as having their usual turnover issues with 6 in the period. The second period was not much better offensively, however the defence picked up a notch holding the Czechs to just 13 second quarter points. The Boomers were still struggling to finish and the three-point halftime margin gave them little confidence.
Mills had 16 points by halftime on 6 for 9 shooting, while the rest of the Boomers had 17 points on 8-30 shooting.
“I thought that with their switching defences, they caused us to be a little anxious early,” said Lemanis post-game.
“We struggled to find our rhythm offensively, but once we did, I thought we did a nice job of starting to penalise their defence.”
That rhythm came when with a five-point lead halfway through the third quarter, one Andrew Michael Bogut was inserted and proceeded to turn the game. In less than five minutes of game time, his passing, defence and scoring took the Boomers on a 15-5 run to close out the third with a 63-48 lead.
The Czech’s weren’t done yet though. A 7-0 run to start the 4th, made it an eight-point game before Bogut made some more contributions to extend the lead once more. After one final mini-run from Czech Republic, it was Mills time again and he did not disappoint.
The frontrunner for tournament MVP came up huge hitting a back-breaking three with just 47 seconds remaining, before sealing it with a long two to send the Boomers to the medal rounds for the first time ever at a FIBA World Cup.
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) September 11, 2019
Mills finished with 24 points including a career World Cup high of 6 made threes from 9 attempts. He also dished 6 assists. Bogut finished with 10 points, 3 assists, 3 blocks and a +12 impact in just 12 minutes of action. Chris Goulding had 14 points, while Joe Ingles had 3 steals.
Pleasingly, the Boomers finished with just 11 turnovers, after having 6 in the first quarter. They forced the Czechs into 16 of their own turnovers; also a good sign.
“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 Lemanis.
The Czech’s run was over, but the Boomers moved to within one win of a guaranteed medal.
“I think we played against a very good team,” said Czech Republic coach Ronen Ginzburg.
“When we played with a small lineup, we could score but have problems on defence. When we played with a big lineup, we wouldn’t play well on offense. This is what happens when you play a team like Australia. Of course, we’re disappointed, but when time passes we will remember this as a great summer.”
Mills is now averaging 22.2 points across the six games, which ranks third overall and first among all players who made it past the first round. Aron Baynes is producing 13.3 points and 5.8 rebounds, while Ingles has delivered 10.5 points, 5.7 rebound and 5.8 assists.
The Boomers rank third in points per game, third in FG% and second in assists of all teams in China. By contrast, Spain ranks 15th in points, 12th in FG% and third in assists (just behind Australia).
Players to Watch – Spain
Ricky Rubio: Once a wonder kid who played for Spain as a 17-year old at the 2008 Olympics, Rubio is now one of the veterans of the team and has been a revelation for them so far. The former teammate of Joe Ingles at Utah (and FC Barcelona back in 2010-11), Rubio will move to the Phoenix Suns this season, where he’ll play with Baynes. A career 32% three-point shooter, he has been red-hot in China hitting at 47.6% from deep, while also being aggressive going to the basket or setting up teammates. Now the all-time FIBA World Cup leader in assists, Rubio will dictate the pace of this game if Mills and Dellavedova cannot stay in front or keep the ball out of his hands.
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) September 10, 2019
Marc Gasol: In Rio, Marc was absent due to a longer than expected recovery period from a broken foot suffered earlier that year. Older brother Pau helped Spain get home for the Bronze over Australia. Here in China, it is Pau who is not there, with Marc left to man the middle. After winning the 2019 NBA Championship with the Toronto Raptors, Gasol is looking to help Spain to their first World Cup medal since stunning the basketball world in taking Gold in 2006; his senior national team debut. Gasol has been solid in China, but has not shot well. He still presents a tough match up for Baynes and Bogut as someone who must be respected out to the three-point line.
Juancho Hernangomez: While he plays sparingly in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets, with the absence of Nikola Mirotic and the retirement of Felipe Reyes from national team duties, a role opened up for the younger Hernangomez brother and he’s grabbed it. Juancho has used his speed and athleticism to get free for easy baskets time and again, he’s crashed the offensive glass and is also hitting a strong clip from deep (42.1%). He had a double-double against Iran and backed that up with 16 points in the win over Italy. He’ll be a tough matchup for the Boomers with Landale starting on him, but I’d expect Mitch Creek to come on and guard him if Hernangomez starts getting hot.
Players to Watch – Australia
Patty Mills: When the Boomers were finding it tough to find the basket early in the quarterfinal, Mills made shots. When it came time to put the game out of reach, Mills made shots. And this was not isolated to the game versus the Czechs; Mills – in following on from his huge fourth quarter against Team USA in Melbourne – has been doing this all tournament. Every time this team has needed someone to step up, he has put his hand up. He knows the right moment to insert himself into a game and take over as needed. Mills has scored at least 15 points in every game, has topped 20 points in four of the six games and his currently on a staggering 51/40/90 pace making him not only a legitimate tournament MVP candidate, but probably the favourite right now. He put up 30 on Spain in that Bronze Medal game and will be looked upon once more to help this team achieve its goal.
Aron Baynes: Valanciunas – tick. Gobert – tick. Baynes has had some big scalps in this tournament and he’ll be looking for one more in Marc Gasol tonight. ‘Banger’ had a quiet game against the Czechs, but opponents have not been able to keep him down. He’s scored inside and outside, he’s played tremendous defence and set great picks; really playing his role to perfection at times. Baynes is also getting tournament all-star five buzz, but he’d settle for some team hardware over individual hardware. Through six games, he’s averaging 13.3 points on a ridiculous clip of 58% FG, 53% 3FG and 91% FT, while also doing his job on the boards and he’ll be a big part of Spain’s scout on the Boomers.
Andrew Bogut: If anyone will want to make amends for that Bronze medal game in Rio, it will be Bogut. He – by his own admission – had a dog of a game, fouling out in less than 14 minutes with just 2 points and 5 rebounds. Bogut, still getting booed every time he touches the ball, turned the game against the Czechs on Wednesday, but the guy who has never cared much for honourable losses will want to ensure his team guarantees themselves a medal tonight. He will do whatever it takes on both ends and when he’s making plays, good things happen for this team.
— NBL (@NBL) September 11, 2019
It seems he doesn’t age. At 34 years old Rudy Fernandez is still flying up and down the court, making good things happen for the Spanish national team. Rudy has been in the senior team for Spain since 2004 and he has plenty to show for it. In this campaign, he’s been a little quiet, but busted out for 16 points, going 5-5 from downtown in the quarterfinals win over Poland. He still has that ability to break games open and will be a tough matchup for Ingles, Goulding and Creek.
The Boomers need to be firing on all cylinders and their wild card is a player who started red hot but has gone just 10-38 since the opening game. Matthew Dellavedova has the ability to blow this game wide open if he starts hitting and after going 3-15 on Wednesday, he’ll be looking to step that up. Delly went from the highs of NBA success with the Cleveland Cavaliers in June 2016 to the lows of that heartbreak in Rio just two months later. He was visibly upset after that loss and if anyone is going to scrap and fight to give his team any extra advantage he can muster, it’s the kid from Maryborough.
What’s at Stake?
This one is pretty simple. A win will guarantee the first ever medal for a Boomers team at a major FIBA tournament and a shot at the Gold, which has been the goal all along.
A loss here would be devastating and mean another tough game against either France or a confident Argentinian team for the Bronze.
Plenty scoffed when the Boomers continuously said the goal is to win it all and not just to medal. But things have broken just right to make that a real possibility and Andrej Lemanis and his men find themselves just two wins away.
They may not get a better chance to do so for some time.
“The thing is right now, the job’s not finished for us,” said Lemanis.
“We finished fourth at the Olympics and that was a terrible feeling, so we’ve given ourselves an opportunity now and we need to ensure we do everything we can to take advantage of this opportunity as we move into the semi-finals.”
The emotions of this game are going to be tough for the Boomers to overcome. Both from the perspective of wanting retribution for Rio, but more so for the incredible yearning to break this medal hoodoo.
An amazing opportunity sits in front of these twelve men and the pressure that may come with not wanting to squander it, could have an impact early. They may start tight; they may make mistakes.
But as they’ve done all tournament, this team will find a way to counter any adversity and have a real crack at winning it.
Spain is not to be underestimated by any stretch. They are a smart, veteran team with years of experience playing together.
Gasol, Rubio, Fernandez, Victor Claver, Pau Ribas and the great Sergio Llull are all battle tested and have the hardware to show it, while Juancho and Willy Hernangomez are the next generation coming through.
They are very beatable though. If the Boomers play the way they have been all tournament, knuckling down defensively when needed, pushing in transition and moving the ball to generate good looks, then they give themselves a chance. That has been proven by some of the scalps already taken in this tournament.
It will not be easy, but Karma owes this country one after the way that game ended in Rio. It’s time to cash in on that.
Australia by 4 points.