Boomers vs Lithuania – Quarter Final Preview
It’s never happened before.
For the first time, the nation’s primary hopes of an Olympic basketball medal rest with the Australian men’s team.
The Opals’ devastating quarter-final loss to European champions Serbia this morning meant that the Australian women’s team would go without a medal after five consecutive trips to the podium.
So it is left to this outstanding Boomers’ squad to get the job done in Rio – a job that begins in earnest at midnight tonight (AEST) when they take on the always dangerous Lithuania.
Australia has done everything right so far – well, almost everything, if you listen to superstar centre Andrew Bogut.
Two wins over perennial contenders France and Serbia opened many eyes and gave Australia their first 2-0 start to an Olympic campaign in their history.
But then came the moment that made the entire world sit up and take notice – the Boomers not only playing against the might of the USA, not only being super-competitive, but actually being in a position to win the game with two minutes left before going down by ten points.
It was an awesome performance. But for Mr Bogut – who spoke for the entire team – close enough was nowhere near good enough. A loss, no matter how honourable, was definitely not something to be celebrated.
That attitude showed in the final couple of games against Group A stragglers China and Venezuela – two games the Boomers were expected to win, but as we have seen so often in these Olympics, nothing is guaranteed.
There was no letdown however, just a couple of professional and composed performances that resulted in a pair of blowout victories – ironically both by 25 points. What was more impressive was the fact Head Coach Andrej Lemanis – who has coached a heck of a tournament – was able to rest his big guns Bogut, Patrick Mills and Matthew Dellavedova and rotate his players heavily in order to ensure they can all be as fresh as possible for the battles ahead.
About the only negative for the Boomers was the shoulder injury suffered by backup forward Cam Bairstow in the Venezuela game. He’s had an excellent tournament and would be a significant loss should he be unable to go.
But even without Cam, Australia would feel confident of victory against a team that has been their Olympic nemesis over the years.
The legendary Arvydas Sabonis – not to mention another superstar in Šarūnas Marčiulionis – denied the Boomers their first Olympic medal with a hard-fought 84-74 win in the playoff for bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Then in 2000, that man Sabonis was at it again, taking advantage of Luc Longley’s absence in the third place playoff in Sydney as Lithuania cruised to an 89-71 victory – their third consecutive Olympic bronze medal, an amazing achievement for a country with a small population.
As always, the Lithuanians came into this tournament as one of the favourites given their history at this event and a roster that included an NBA star in big man Jonas Valanciunas. And they opened group play strongly with three straight wins over Brazil (82-76), Nigeria (89-80) and Argentina (81-73).
But their next game sent shockwaves throughout the Olympic tournament.
Coming up against Group B powerhouse Spain, who hadn’t played well in their three games and had lost to Croatia, Lithuania played one of their worst games in many years and were destroyed by an incredible 50 points, 109-59.
No one saw that coming. Lithuania had looked solid – if not overly convincing – in the tournament’s first week, but were obliterated by a Spanish juggernaut that shot the ball at 57% from the field and boasted six players with double figure scoring.
And while they had guaranteed their spot in the quarters thanks to that 3-0 start, the Lithuanians dropped their final game to Croatia to finish a surprising third in Group B.
Their last two games notwithstanding, Lithuania presents an enormous challenge to the Boomers, who have beaten them only once in Olympic history, back in 2008.
Guard Mantas Kalnietis has been outstanding so far, averaging 19.2 points and 8.0 assists per game and is the one Australia must control. Bogut’s battle with Jonas Valanciunas will go a huge way to determining the outcome and the Boomers must do the job defensively against a team that likes to get up and down the floor in a hurry and has a potent midrange game.
But Australia will go in favourites, and deservedly so. Boasting a frontline that the Serbian coach called “second to none” in this tournament, Bogut anchors this team defensively and is the best passing big man in Rio while Aron Baynes provides the muscle and intimidation and David Andersen is a perfect stretch four who can cause damage inside and out.
Australia’s NBA backcourt of Mills and Dellavedova has been the best combination at these Olympics outside the NBA superstars on the US squad and both will be primed after getting a great deal of rest in the final two preliminary games. Dellavedova has been a revelation with his brilliant point guard play and Mills’ speed and perimeter ability will cause Lithuania all kinds of trouble.
As ever, Australia needs a total team effort and must continue to play as unselfishly as they have been and with as much composure as they can muster. Lithuania has firepower up and down the roster, and they will make several runs at the Boomers, so it’s vital that Australia weathers the storm and punches back in kind to win this ballgame.
In the end, this Australian team looks to be one of destiny. Lithuania will give them all they can handle, but I look for the Boomers to prevail and give themselves a shot at that elusive Olympic medal.
Come on boys. The country is right behind you. Let’s get it done.