It was a celebration of basketball Thursday night in Australia as more than 50,000 fans packed Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium to see their Boomers take on the USA Basketball Men’s National Team.
While the scene was memorable, the fans left disappointed as the U.S. pulled away in the second half en route to a 102-86 victory. Make that two wins from two thus far in exhibition for the United States as it prepares for the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China Aug. 31-Sept. 15. U.S. captain Kemba Walker led all scorers with 23 points, and Myles Turner chipped in a double-double with 15 points and 14 boards. Donovan Mitchell accounted for 13 points, Kyle Kuzma san 4-of-5 3-pointers for 12 points and Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum scored 11 points each.
“It was a physical game, the competitiveness was great on both ends,” said USA head coach Gregg Popovich. “I thought the Boomers run some hellacious offense, really hard to guard, they do a great job moving and cutting. Coach (Andrej) Lemanis has got them at a high level in that regard.”
It was a fine shooting night in total for the Americans as they shot 48% from the field and 43% from 3. Walker led a balanced scoring attack in which six players – and four starters – scored in double figures.
There were some familiar faces on both benches, with six players on Australia occupying a place on NBA rosters. Notable friends turned foes were the USA’s Mitchell and Australia’s Joe Ingles, who are teammates on the Utah Jazz. The basketball-crazy Australian fans turned out to Marvel Stadium – normally home to Australian Rules Football and soccer – to cheer on their heroes as well as see some of the best players in the world from the United States.
“It was an incredible atmosphere,” said U.S. forward Tatum, “unique experience.”
Though such a basketball scene may be rare Down Under, it was perhaps a familiar sight to players like Walker and Mason Plumlee who played in the NCAA Final Four. The court setup echoed the modern treatment of that event, with a raised court in the middle of the floor and fans surrounding it in temporary seats.
There were maybe some nerves at play for the Boomers as Team USA raced out to a 6-0 lead early. But thanks to the sharp shooting from distance by Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills, Australia closed the gap.
Helping keep Australia at bay was Kuzma, who did not start but made an impact off the bench by going 3-4 from deep in the first quarter. His only miss rattled out on a half-court attempt at the buzzer.
Australia’s Ingles opened the second quarter with a jumper to tie it, then Andrew Bogut – coached last year at Golden State by USA assistant Steve Kerr – threw down an emphatic dunk seconds later as the Boomers opened up their biggest lead of the game at three. But from there it appeared the USA might run away with things. The Americans went on a 17-3 run, scoring inside and outside. Tatum nailed back-to-back 3s to open up an 11-point lead at 39-28.
But the Australia defense clamped down to close the half. Mills – coached by Popovich in San Antonio – drilled a 3 just before the buzzer to complete a 15-5 run and reduce the U.S. lead to one. Australia’s Chris Goulding scored 10 points, all off the bench.
“Our transition defense was poor and they got three 3s in a row and that’s what happened down the stretch in the second quarter,” Popovich said. “I think they scored 12 points in two-and-a-half minutes and three of those buckets we those 3s.”
The third quarter opened as almost a carbon copy of the second. Australia grabbed a lead, and the U.S. matched with a big run. But this time, the Americans didn’t let Australia back in the game. After Australia went up 45-44, the U.S. then put together a 13-0 run. Kuzma checked in for the first time in the half with 5:20 to go and showed no signs of being cold. He hit his fourth 3 of the game 14 seconds later to extend the lead to 62-50.
The U.S. hit 13 of 19 shots in the third quarter and outscored Australia 32-18. The Boomers opened up the fourth quarter with a 3 by Aron Baynes to pull to within 12, but they got no closer. The balanced U.S. scoring attack continued to fire on all cylinders, even flashing some highlight-reel material with a splendid alley-oop from Tatum toBrown with 3:57 left. That score opened up a 20-point lead, the largest of the game.
Despite allowing Australia to make some runs in the first half, Popovich was pleased with the effort of his team that is still coming together with a major tournament just ahead.
“We got used to the physicality, and changed up a couple things and we had some guys that did a good job,” Popovich said. “Myles Turner came in and gave us a big punch there, he was great. Obviously Kemba in pick-and-roll is pretty tough to guard, so we’re learning what we should be running offensively and what we should be doing based on our personnel. We’re obviously not an experienced team, these guys have never played together, so I think they’re doing a really good job of trying to come together quickly and learn about each other.”
These two teams will square off again on Saturday from the same court as World Cup preparation continues. Now that the teams have some familiarity with each other, the U.S. will have to react to adjustments that Australia will make.
“We need to make a few adjustments, a few mistakes that we had,” Kuzma said. “Obviously, they are going to make adjustments, and we just got to react to those.”
“It definitely changes everything, because they kind of see what we are about, what we do.” said Turner. “We just have to be ready for them.”
Photo: USA Basketball