How the Boomers won a brutal chess game vs. Lithuania

DONGGUAN, China -- This is it. This is now real.

Disregard an exhibition series against Team USA. Disregard a first-up, almost must-win game against Group rivals Canada. The test -- the real test -- for the Boomers' medal credentials was always going to hinge on a confrontation with historical rivals, Lithuania.

Consider the stakes: actual tournament play, a grind-it-out style that would test the Australians, a surging opponent backed by a frenetic, roaring, travelling band of supporters (and their drums) and media alike. Both will travel to Nanjing -- this was confirmed days ago -- but the winner of this vaunted Group H clash would have more than just bragging rights within this storied rivalry.

"They're great in their sets - they've got winks on blinks on counters," said Boomers assistant coach Luc Longley, a few days ago. "They've got enough bigs to be a problem inside. They've got enough shooting. They're just a very good basketball team -- well organised, well disciplined, and they care a lot."

"Obviously, got the bigs inside, big, physical bigs," said Matthew Dellavedova. "But I think [they're] a very even team -- a lot of perimeter and wing scoring as well."

Boomers power forward David Barlow explained to ESPN that the level of detail has been astounding when it came to preparation for their bodies, their schemes, their opponents.

The Boomers have been fully aware of the potential permutations and competition mechanisms which have ensured that every game, every point, means so much in the this tournament.

Win the game, and the Boomers would take a huge advantage over to the second group phase, where all wins, points differential and head-to-head become potential arbiters for progression deeper into the tournament. Of course, lose and the Boomers would likely need to win both phase two games -- against both France and Dominican Republic -- for the opportunity to qualify to the knockout stage.

These were the stakes. This was the puzzle that was yet to be solved.

"It feels like you're playing your brother," assistant coach Will Weaver told ESPN before the game, of facing Lithuania. "On the street, one-on-one."

Weaver described the challenges in-game adjustments, of reading and reacting to what Lithuania would throw at them, in the manner of a high-level chess game. To win, the Boomers would need to solve those puzzles deep in the trenches.

Shortcomings are amplified in the cauldron of a tournament, and within the company of elite competition. In Lithuania, the Boomers found a creditable puzzle to solve, as they survived a blistering second-half rally to win 87-82, and carry a precious one-game advantage into the second round of group play.

Allowing offensive rebounding, and the subsequent second-chance opportunities, was a sore spot for the Boomers against Senegal. The twin towers of Memphis Grizzlies big man Jonas Valanciunas and the Indiana Pacers' Domantas Sabonis have been bulwarks in this tournament, bludgeoning their opponents on the glass. They would be an imposing frontline.

Lithuania averaged a staggering 15 o-boards (and 16 second-chance points) over their first two matches. A point of emphasis had to be to keep the likes of Valanciunas and Sabonis from beasting the offensive glass. In an amped up Aron Baynes, they met their beefy match, the Boomers centre barging his way to every defensive rebound available, setting the tone on the glass, particularly with Andrew Bogut plagued by foul trouble.

"He was huge with his defence on those two bigs," Joe Ingles said.

When it wasn't just Baynes, it was a team effort; Dellavedova and Nick Kay got to landing spots through sheer effort; Mitch Creek skied high to secure a defensive board in one of his first touches; Mills scampered like a madman to chase down one long rebound. When two were engaged in the action, a third came to swat the ball away from a Lithuanian offensive rebound. Creek ripped the ball away from Valanciunas in the fourth quarter.

Lithuania had zero second-chance points at the half. Zilch.

The Australian offence had been humming across the first two games, shooting 68.6% for two-pointers, and 40% from deep. Against quality opposition, the Boomers shot 50% from for two-pointers, and 42% from beyond the arc. This looks sustainable.

At their best, their ball movement, and whirring movement, has been a sight to behold. If anything, they've sometimes been guilty of over-passing.

"That's the style we play," said Dellavedova. "We've got an unselfish team. And when we're cutting hard, moving the ball, it's a lot harder to defend and scout."

The Boomers have multiple playmakers on the court at all times in the form of Ingles, Dellavedova, Bogut.

The only downside has been turnovers, with some balls flung across the gym as if they're allergic to it.

They averaged 14 turnovers against both Canada and Senegal. Against Lithuania, they threw it away 15 times, sometimes from penetrating too deep, sometimes just with lazy passes; Lithuania averaged 18.5 points from turnovers per game heading into this match. Allowing easy points in these sorts of games invites trouble, but the Boomers held on.

If not for some late-game Mills heroics, the outcome could have been different.

He is shooting 31.5% from deep for the tournament, from over six attempts per game. And then he goes ahead and nails one in Valanciunas' grill with 32.9 seconds to close the game.

"You guys know him," Ingles said. "We know him. He's done that every game. It's what he does. He's a great player. It doesn't really surprise me, to be honest with you."

Boomers head coach Andrej Lemanis said after the game it was Ingles who wanted the ball in Mills' hands at the death to create a basket. And he delivered.

Baynes' as a three-point release valve can sometimes be a mirage. In this game, he was 3-of-5 from deep. After hitting his second triple at the top of the arc, Valanciunas turned around with both arms in despair in unspoken exasperation: What can I do?

"He got us going early," Ingles said. "He hit those couple of shots early to get us going."

Whilst the ball zinged for the Boomers -- particularly in that first half -- Lithuania was more plodding, looking to exploit perceived mismatches once the Boomers' discipline took away options.

Marius Grigonis attacked Mills early, a pullup in the middle lane was followed by a floater from the left baseline. Mills responded immediately with a pull-up triple. Mills' defence was problematic all game, so much so that Lemanis flipped Ingles, and then Dellavedova to defend Grigonis.

When Bogut checked in, Mantas Kalnietis attacked with middle on-balls, and drew (and took) open jumpers. Australia continued to yield the midrange space (even with Baynes), and Lithuania were more than happy to take those shots.

Sabonis feasted on Landale whenever they matched up. Valanciunas drew Bogut's fourth foul with a brutal shoulder check in the post.

Lithuania were a mess with their team defence in the first half, botching switches, not rotating for help, too often eyes glued to their own assignment. Kay leveraged Lithuania confusion for two open layups. Jock Landale and Baynes crammed with no one in sight.

Yet once Lithuania adjusted defensively -- the in-game chess that Weaver referenced -- the ball stopped moving for the Boomers, and the offence ground to a miserable halt. That gorgeous, whirring machine became a stalling mess. On one final-quarter possession, Kalnietis ripped the ball away from Dellavedova after all his options were closed down. Lithuania had successfully ground down the game to a snail's pace, on their terms.

"It was always going to be tight," Lemanis said. "It was always going to be a tussle."

In the second half, Lithuania got to the middle of the lane too easily, as Boomers defenders died on screens. From there, it was either open jumper or a straight-line drive to the rim against a backpedalling opponent.

Still, the Boomers survived. It was a brutally physical contest, but this was always going to be their first true test. It only gets harder from here.

"I'm really proud of our group for managing to find a way," Lemanis said.

Another problem solved in their quest for a medal.