Boomers vs Spain – Bronze Medal Playoff Preview
“It was unAustralian.”
Those were the words used by Boomers’ forward Joe Ingles to describe Australia’s horrific 87-61 loss to Serbia in the Olympic semi-finals.
And considering the way the Boomers had played in the tournament before their disaster, it was an accurate summation of what happened Saturday in Rio.
Coming in off the back of maybe the best single performance by an Australian men’s team in history with their ruthless destruction of world number three Lithuania in the quarter-final, and with the knowledge they had put up 95 points against Serbia in the preliminary rounds, Australia came in as favourites to reach an historic gold medal playoff game.
But right from the start, the team looked nervous, tight and completely overmatched, jumped early by a Serbia that had been battle-hardened in the intensity and ultra-competitiveness of European tournaments and made all the right adjustments following their loss to the Boomers in Group play.
Incredibly, Australia could muster just 14 points to halftime and the game was done – the second half merely window dressing as the Serbs got everything they wanted offensively and stifled what had previously been one of the most fluid and confident offences in the tournament.
The devastation on the faces of the entire team was clear from about the eight minute mark of the fourth quarter. Their primary goal of an Olympic gold medal was unattainable for another four years.
But one dream, one piece of history remains.
An Olympic medal, period.
So at 12:30am (AEST) Monday morning, the Boomers will re-enter the Olympic cauldron with one remaining task – the all-important Bronze medal – as they take on world number two Spain, who pushed the United States right to the limit in going down 82-76 in their semi-final.
That performance, coupled with Australia’s dismal display against Serbia, will see the Spanish enter this game as the hottest of favourites.
And make no mistake, this challenge may be the greatest any Australian team has ever faced.
Spain began this tournament looking like they were going to make an early exit. Insipid losses to Croatia and Brazil saw them at 1-2 in a congested Group B and they looked nothing like the ballclub that had long established itself as the one group that could legitimately challenge the American hegemony.
But they beat Nigeria to stay alive, and then stunned the tournament with a 50-point massacre of Lithuania to show the world they remained a powerhouse.
Their confidence clearly lifted, they went on to demolish Argentina to finish second in their group before annihilating France in the quarter-final.
In the semis against the US, their lack of a second consistent offensive threat outside Pau Gasol probably hurt them as much as anything, but they were as competitive against the United States as anyone has been in this tournament and come into this battle with the Boomers in form and ready to go.
Even at age 36, Gasol remains one of the world’s best big men and represents a tough assignment for Andrew Bogut given his mobility, his smarts and ability to stretch the floor with his perimeter shooting.
Then there’s a roster loaded with guys who have had both NBA and elite European experience and won a ton of medals in international play.
Rudy Fernandez is an outstanding small forward who can fill it up from distance, Ricky Rubio has his detractors but is nonetheless a gifted ballhandler with great vision, Nikola Mirotic and Willy Hernangomez are a pair of big, mobile forwards and they have several great veterans in Sergio Rodriguez, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro.
It’s maybe the first big test of Australian head coach Andrej Lemanis. Aside from dealing with Spain’s outstanding talent, experience and execution, his biggest challenge is of the mind.
Psychologically, how does he pick up his devastated group in just 48 hours?
We all saw the faces. We all heard the comments afterwards. This was a team that looked near-invincible, yet was dealt one savage blow after the other and was never competitive in what, under the circumstances, was the biggest game in Australian basketball history.
So how does Coach Lemanis re-instil that incredible confidence that his team played with over the previous six games? What adjustments can he make to get his guys going early and feeling good about themselves again?
It has to start at the defensive end of the floor. Australia was picked apart too many times by Serbia’s precise ball movement, and there’s no doubt Spain will look to do the same. The Spanish will be patient in the half court and search for the open man on quick ball reversals to the weak side, and will require both intensity and discipline from the Boomers.
The old adage is from good defence comes good offence. Spain hasn’t been all that great with their transition D in this tournament, so if Australia can string some stops together and use their speed in the open court to find some cheap baskets, it will both help their confidence immeasurably and start to sow those seeds of doubt in Spanish minds.
It would also help if the Boomers could get back to their efficient perimeter shooting ways. Against Serbia, the team shot a truly awful 4 of 31 from three point range. Literally nothing was going and it’s hard to believe they will repeat that in this one.
Ultimately however, it’s up to each individual on that squad to refocus and understand that they are good enough, that they do belong at the very top echelon internationally; that the game against Serbia was just an unfortunate aberration.
One thing’s for sure – you can never count out the mighty Aussie spirit. That alone can take the Boomers to that elusive Olympic medal.
Come on boys. This country still believes in you. Go get that bronze.
You deserve it.