Olympic Basketball Update
“We’re going there to get a gold medal.”
Those were the words of Australian Boomers Head Coach Andrej Lemanis in June.
And at the time, a lot of people scoffed at those words.
But you couldn’t blame them. After all, star centre Andrew Bogut was coming off a knee injury and rated himself “highly unlikely to play”; the Boomers had never won a medal in Olympic competition and were faced with a tough draw that saw them pitted against the might of the United States, not to mention powerhouse clubs like France and Serbia, both ranked well above Australia in the official FIBA rankings.
Then in the other group loomed traditional heavyweights Spain and Argentina alongside resurgent nations like Croatia and Lithuania, all boasting an abundance of NBA talent.
The scepticism was understandable.
But oh how things have changed.
Bogut’s miraculous recovery from the bone bruising he suffered in Game Five of the NBA Finals – an injury, by the way, that almost certainly was a big key in the Golden State Warriors losing their crown to the Cleveland Cavaliers – has given the Australian team the type of confidence they have never before displayed at Olympic level.
Andrew’s presence has changed everything, and he has made everyone on that team better.
And with two games left in the preliminary round, Australia has improbably stamped themselves as a gold medal contender after three sensational performances against the aforementioned ‘Big Three’ of Group A – France, Serbia and the United States.
It started with a blowout win over a French team featuring the great Tony Parker, who exploded for 16 points in the second quarter to key a big comeback before Bogut, Patrick Mills and Matthew Dellavedova – with a great cameo from Aron Baynes – dominated the second half to help Australia power away to an eye-opening 87-66 win.
Beating a French team who looked disinterested in matching the Boomers’ intensity and execution was one thing. Surely Serbia would prove to be a tougher test?
To a degree, the answer to that question was yes. Through three quarters, the Serbs and Boomers engaged in a slugfest, with neither able to establish much momentum.
But in a spectacular fourth quarter offensive onslaught, keyed by Mills, who finished with a game-high 26 points, Australia pulled away with 33 points in the last ten minutes and powered to a 95-80 win as Dellavedova played perhaps his finest game in the green and gold, dropping 23 points and 13 assists in what was an incredible display of floor leadership.
It was the first time in Olympic history that Australia started a tournament 2-0.
Then came the might of the USA.
- Melo. Draymond. Klay. Aussie Kyrie. And all the rest.
Most judges thought the Boomers would get lucky to get within 30. That the Americans’ overall talent and athleticism would prove too much to overcome.
But from tipoff, it was clear this was going to be a far more competitive contest that anyone could have possibly imagined.
Playing the kind of unselfish team basketball that has become a hallmark of this group, the Boomers went toe to toe with the US for the best part of 38 minutes, answering every run the Americans made and showing zero fear of their vaunted opponents.
With Bogut dominating the US frontline, birthday boy Mills proving unstoppable and Dellavedova again showing brilliance from the point guard position with 11 points and 11 assists, Australia kept the pressure on to be down just four with two minutes remaining.
In the end, Carmelo Anthony’s nine triples and a dagger three from Kyrie Irving, plus the Americans dominating the offensive glass and forcing 17 Australian turnovers proved too much for the Boomers, who went down 98-88 – a score line that didn’t accurately reflect the closeness of what was a fierce battle.
But as most of Australia celebrated the Boomers’ performance in getting as close as they did, Andrew Bogut showed the new attitude of the Boomers in no uncertain terms, throwing cold water on any ‘moral victories’.
“We’re not going to take small moral victories,” he said afterwards.
“They’re the best team in the world, we battled them, and we thought we should have been in a position to try and grind out a close game.”
“We have things to work on. We will do that. We lost the game; we cannot sugar coat it. We believed we could compete and we are disappointed with the result.”
That disappointment will no doubt fuel this team, who with two games remaining at time of writing against Group A minnows China and Venezuela, are in the box seat for second position in the group. They now have a scenario where they won’t play the USA until the gold medal game, should they get that far.
It’s one game at a time for the Boomers. But this is unquestionably their best chance to grab that elusive medal. Incredibly, they’ve also put themselves in the conversation for gold.
As far as the Opals are concerned on the women’s side, it’s been business as usual – sort of.
The world’s second-ranked ballclub began their campaign against host nation Brazil, who, as expected, played above themselves in front of a raucous home crowd and gave Australia all it could handle for three quarters.
But with Opal superstars Penny Taylor (17 points) and Elizabeth Cambage (20 points, 14 rebounds) dominant, Australia quietened the fans in the fourth quarter and pulled away to win comfortably in the end, 84-66.
The next game against Turkey was expected to be an easy win, given that the Opals had destroyed the Turks in the last game they played.
But this is the Olympics, and form sometimes means very little. Turkey had a great game plan to harass and frustrate the Opals, and they were competitive right to the end. Only the brilliance of Cambage (22 points, 11 boards) and a couple of clutch shots from star point guard Leilani Mitchell (11 points, three assists) got Australia over the line, 61-56, in what Head Coach Brendan Joyce later admitted was “ugly.”
Things looked a lot better against France in the next game, even though the Opals continued a worrying trend of slow starts.
With the French double-teaming Cambage (16 points, seven rebounds) at every turn, it was left to Opals’ captain Penny Taylor to carry the load, and the ageless wonder was superb in tallying 31 points, nine assists, five rebounds and three steals in leading Australia to a solid 89-71 victory to take them to 3-0 in the tournament.
16th ranked Japan were up next, and there was no need for the Opals to be worried, right?
Using their overwhelming speed to befuddle Australia defensively and burning the Opals on the pick and roll constantly, Japan came out of the blocks hard and kept the pressure on through a stunning three periods.
Leading by 12 after three and 16 with nine minutes left, the Japanese girls looked like they were going to spring one of the biggest upsets in Olympic basketball history.
But the one person they had no answer for was Elizabeth Cambage.
Once the Opals decided to ride their 6’8” behemoth all the way to the finish, the Japanese crumbled, unable to match the size, mobility and extreme talent of the Australian superstar.
She was simply a colossus in the final quarter, tallying 18 of her 37 points in the period and making one big shot after the other.
Japan hung tough with some huge baskets themselves. But with Cambage completely unstoppable and Leilani Mitchell making excellent decisions down the stretch, the Opals closed with a 33-15 final quarter to ease some definite stress and got the 92-86 victory to guarantee themselves the top seed in Group A, which will see them, like the Boomers, avoid the United States until the gold medal game.
With the Australian swimming team producing such underwhelming results at these Olympics and results not going as expected in some other sports, there is a sense that both the men’s and women’s basketball teams are going to be relied upon to provide some real success in Rio.
And that says a great deal about the state of Australian basketball. Keep it going, boys and girls.