Australia men’s basketball team is in a golden era, but today’s semi-final against the USA at the Tokyo Olympics looms as possibly the biggest moment in the squad’s history.
After semi-final and bronze-medal losses at both Rio 2016 and the 2019 World Cup, the Boomers have a real chance to win any of the three medals in Tokyo, with the small matter of the three-time defending Olympic champions in the way.
When Australia’s men’s team hits the hardwood of the Saitama Super Arena on Thursday afternoon, they meet the US almost as equals; just two very good international basketball teams playing for a spot in the final and a shot at gold.
Australia meets USA at 2:15pm AEST, while the other men’s basketball semi-final pits France against Slovenia at 9:00pm.
The Boomers are actually the top-ranked side in this semi-final, coming in with four straight wins in this tournament, plus going undefeated through three warm-up games, including one against the US.
But the Opals also beat their American counterparts in pre-Olympic competition, only to get pasted in their quarter-final, so we can’t rely on that.
Australia was impressive in the group stage, handily beating Nigeria in their opener, edging Italy in a nail-biter 86-83, and dominating Germany 89-76.
They followed that up with a massive 97-59 quarter-final thumping of Argentina, running up the score in the second half and getting every Boomer on the scoresheet.
The US, meanwhile, lost to Australia before the Olympics, then lost to France in their first group game in Tokyo, before regrouping with big wins over Iran and the Czech Republic, but the most impressive was their 95-81 win in the quarter-final against 2019 World Cup winners Spain.
Comparing the Boomers with the US based on sheer player-to-player talent has always been a fool’s errand, and while the Americans still probably have the edge on that front, the gap is narrower than ever.
Don’t get it twisted; even without Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Stephen Curry or James Harden, Team USA is still stacked.
Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Devin Booker are close to impossible to stop once they get going on the offensive end, and Jrue Holiday, Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green are defensive beasts.
But unlike previous years, Australia has the tools to attack the US weaknesses, like Lillard and Booker’s bad defence or Green’s lack of shooting.
Australia’s guard rotation of Patty Mills, Dante Exum and Matthew Dellavedova make themselves complete nuisances on defence and will trouble their opposite numbers, while Matisse Thybulle gives the Boomers something they’ve never had before.
He is an elite defender with enough size, skill and athleticism to bother Durant (as much as anyone can bother arguably the greatest pure scorer basketball has seen).
Thybulle’s quick hands and impeccable instincts on defence have sparked the Boomers every time he’s come into a game, and he’s making enough threes (5/9 in Tokyo) to give defenders second thoughts about leaving him wide open.
The Boomers did lose starting centre Aron Baynes to a neck injury earlier in the tournament, which robs them of a major defender under the rim and someone who can knock down threes at a decent clip.
Newly minted NBA player Jock Landale and Nic Kay have done an excellent job in Baynes’s stead, but Kay’s struggles from deep could come back to bite the Aussies against quality opposition like the US.
How the Boomers can win
There are a few things Australia needs to happen to reach the final, all of which have happened at one point or another during the Olympics.
First, they’re going to need the US to miss some shots.
Australia’s defence, anchored on the outside by Thybulle, is world class and can match it with America, but the Boomers will also be hoping for a bit of help from the basketball gods.
In the USA’s first-up loss to France, they did not score a single point from the field for the final four minutes. That included successive wide-open three-point misses by Durant, Holiday and Zach LaVine. More of that please.
On the flip side, Australia’s shooters need to make their chances count.
We mentioned Thybulle earlier. Mills is on fire once again and Landale is having a tournament to remember, but Dellavedova is the one who really needs to find his radar.
He’s yet to have a good game shooting the ball and is going at 23.5 per cent from the field. Delly’s job is primarily to be a bothersome defender, but he needs to start knocking down the open shots that the defence is giving him, particularly corner threes.
Kay will also have those shots available to him and he needs to be better than his 0/4 from the quarter-final.
The rebound battle is also going to be huge.
In their toughest test of these Games, Australia beat Italy thanks mostly to a 16-6 advantage in offensive rebounds, and Germany got much closer than they should have after dominating the rebound battle 45-28.
The days of USA dominating with big men are gone, but without Baynes, it will be a massive ask for Landale, Kay and Duop Reath to keep Bam Adebayo, Green and Durant off the boards.