For the Boomers, it might never get better than the halfway mark of the second quarter of the Olympic semi-final in Tokyo.
It was an awkward moment for Team USA coach Gregg Popovich: latching onto an alley-oop pass from Dante Exum, Australia’s Jock Landale hammered down an emphatic dunk.
Popovich had just signed Landale to a two-year contract with his San Antonio Spurs, and here again the centre was providing vindication of the great coach’s faith.
The unfortunate thing for Popovich was that Landale’s bucket extended Australia’s lead to 15 points and the Americans — leading the way only in turnovers and fouls — looked as flat as tacks.
What happened to Australia thereafter was so close to the worst-case scenario it could only be digested with a rueful chuckle and gratitude that injury was not added to insult.
Sensing the Boomers slackening every so slightly in the final four minutes of the half, the Americans trimmed the deficit to three.
Popovich, who was more ‘pop-a-vein’ in the first half, clearly expressed a very strong message at the half-time break. After it, the Americans combined stifling defence with rampant offence, consigning Australia to a deflating 19-point loss.
The Boomers will play either France or Slovenia —probably Slovenia — for bronze.
Given the unlikelihood of Australia’s senior stars — Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles, Matthew Dellavedova — all featuring at Paris 2024, Australia will view this as its best gold medal chance blown.
Among the aspects to rue, the latter two of the above saved probably their worst games in Australian colours for precisely the wrong moment.
“They’ll lose a little sleep over this one,” Australian basketball legend Andrew Gaze said afterwards.
So might some fans.
Mitigating factors? Every refereeing call that could go USA’s way did, although that seemed like nothing when Australia was ascendant.
Having outworked their opponents in the first half, the Boomers were both out-hustled and outclassed in the second.
The Australian coaching is worthy of some scrutiny, too.
The worst of it was during the USA’s 17-0 run in the third quarter, when anyone in Australia who knows a thing or two about basketball was screaming at the television: “Where on earth is Matisse Thybulle, and why is Brian Goorjian not calling a time-out?”
By the time Thybulle finally reappeared, the horse had well and truly bolted.
Thybulle a star on the rise
Perhaps it is better to appraise the positives, of which Australia had already provided plenty before this game.
Thybulle is a big one. Many fans will continue to stew on NBA superstar Ben Simmons’s withdrawal from these Games, but they cannot be anything but pleased at the role he played in convincing his American-born, Sydney-raised teammate to chose Australia.
Thybulle possesses qualities basketball expresses succinctly: length, speed and IQ.
A more flattering explanation — one that respects his enormous influence on the Boomers’ performances of the past two weeks — is that for every second of his playing time, Thybulle hares up and down the court, harassing opponents, appearing from nowhere in the lanes they attack, stealing or deflecting seemingly every ball in his path, until scoring avenues become dead ends.
In the past fortnight, Thybulle has not only become the best perimeter defender to pull on a Boomers uniform, he has proved himself one of the best in the world.
What else changed to put Australia in the position to be so disappointed at this loss?
Beyond the standard-bearing excellence of the NBA veterans, this Boomers squad is multifaceted and balanced.
In previous eras, the withdrawal of a once-in-a-lifetime player like Simmons would have been fatal to Australia’s chances, as would the subsequent injury of a champion centre like Baynes. Instead, the back-ups have thrived.
Landale is an NBL product so polished he can be imagined fitting in seamlessly to the NBA.
Unheralded Nick Kay, who had a double-double in the quarter-final win against Argentina, was best summed up by former Opals champion Michele Timms: “From here on in Australian basketball we will be saying, ‘You need a Nick Kay in your team’.”
Exum, pushed close to obscurity by injuries in recent years, looks reborn. Josh Green is just getting going.
Each is marshalled by a man universally admired. Before, during and after each game, Mills simply sets the benchmark for leadership in Australian sport — probably for the country at large.
When Mills donated his entire 2020 NBA season re-start salary to social justice causes and established Team Mills Foundation, he said his guiding principle was to make a “tangible difference”.
His effect on the Boomers includes intangible components that might only be known when his dreaded and hopefully distant retirement comes, because point guards are a lot easier to find than generational leaders.
A few days ago, Shane Heal, a Boomers star of a bygone era, gave an arresting insight into the way rivalries evolve.
Heal tweeted an enchanting photo showing the bench of the 1992 USA ‘Dream Team’ at the Barcelona Games: Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Larry Bird.
Greatness and charisma radiated from the image.
Heal drew attention to the row of spectators behind them: “And two good looking roosters looking on!”
Sure enough, there sat Heal and Gaze, Australian Olympic greats both, much more than NBA bit-players, never plagued by thoughts of inferiority, never ones to take backward steps in the presence of such players.
Yet for that moment, they were fans too, awed by the star power of men who were simultaneously opponents and aspirational figures. In their facial expressions, the game’s hierarchy was abundantly clear. Australia was playing for five bucks with two dollars in its pocket.
Not now. On Thursday, the Boomers faced an opponent with whom previous generations would have been content to honourably compete.
Patty Mills’s squad expected to win and were shattered they didn’t.