Watch a French defensive possession, and you will see a protective shell formed around the paint in the form of Rudy Gobert, whilst the rest of the unit plays up-and-in on their defensive marks, confident that they have the best rim protector in the tournament to save their bacon.
Before this game, Gobert sported the third best defensive rating amongst centres for RealGM in this tournament, behind Myles Turner (and Brook Lopez, everyone!). He's nabbed 33.7 percent of available defensive rebounds, and blocked 9.7 percent of opponent's shot attempts, both elite marks. He's changed countless shots in the paint; Domantas Sabonis look petrified in the lane in their clash.
And in the initial moments, it threatened to be a similar outlook for the Boomers. Jock Landale had his attempt at front of the cup callously swatted away by the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year. But the Boomers would not wilt, making big shot after big shot, in their thrilling 100-99 victory over France.
Nicolas Batum has been a roving menace and defensive savant throughout this tournament, watching the play unfold for an opportunity to insert himself. He's able to toggle seamlessly between match ups, often within a single possession, directing switches without compromising any team defensive integrity. He might be the most intelligent perimeter player in this tournament. He and Gobert would form a defensive partnership as the cornerstone of the French defence.
The Boomers would need to gird themselves for a belligerent defensive assault - underpinned by these two defensive savants. This French team throttles their hapless opponents with their collective length, before unleashing their transition game with their cadre of athletes and decision-makers.
The Batum-Gobert defensive pairing yields nothing, as Joe Ingles would find out. In one first quarter possession, he danced with Aron Baynes as his screen partner - snaking back, again and again, re-screen after re-screen - but Batum (with his length) would simply sink under each pick, with Gobert as his backline shield, and watch as Ingles would yield and the offence would reset.
Teams are betting that Ingles doesn't have the dynamic speed to beat them to the spot, and that he needs time to wind up his own shot. He looks tired, shouldering more of the playmaking load than he typically needs to. It's also exhausting chasing over picks, and then stopping on a dime, when your savvy opponent slows down, sticking their backside, looking for foul. Yet he's still finding a way around all of this; his second half was a mix of incredible and bombastic shotmaking.
There was the game-within-the game involving the Boomers and Gobert; the focus of the Australians was not allowing a free roll for Gobert - they would live with those midrange looks for Frank Ntilikina, and little floaters for Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo. Conversely, Gobert would not yield his real estate closer to the lane, undeterred by Baynes' three-point shooting, believing it to be a mirage.
There is no perfect game, but this was certainly a very well-played one, and one of philosophy.
The French took only six three-point attempts in the first half, a product of the Boomers chasing over each pick and funnelling their opponents inside the arc. They took, and made, midrange look after midrange look (particularly on the left side of the floor), as the Boomers refused to send help. On the other side of the court, the Boomers took 14 shots from beyond the arc at the half, making seven. All of their 30 field attempts at the half, bar one long-two, were either three-point looks, or shots in the paint. They would only take three shots in total in those in-between spaces for the night.
This game was a battle of math. Australia took 27 shots from beyond the arc, making 13 of them. France took 17 and made seven; they were able to keep pace by winning the possession count.
The Boomers made the most of those non-Gobert minutes and attacked the middle of the lane against a more suspect, but spectacularly-bearded, Vincent Poirier. Poirier plays higher up on the pick-and-roll defence (ironically, his positioning is something the Boomers' big men could look into), and has more nimble feet than Gobert, but doesn't have great defensive instincts.
We saw that in the second quarter, when the Boomers attacked the paint with Gobert off the court. There was the Dellavedova-Bogut two-man game on the right side of the floor yielded a goal-tend, followed by a two-shot foul. That was followed by another open layup look that Bogut missed. There was another where he simply hooked over Poirier. Mills scored inside again on a reverse layup past Mathias Lessort.
In the third quarter, the Boomers struggled to fight through French screens, allowing Evan Fournier air space, and a head of steam that fuelled his onslaught. That's also the gravity of Gobert, the best rim running centre in the tournament, which paralyses the defending big from helping. Commit to the ball-handler, and he reigns lob dunk death. That paralysis - the cognitive inertia that grinds quick defensive decision-making to a halt - is able to buy more runway for his guards. The threat of the lob, or ceding deep offensive rebounding position, is too great.
Fournier was able to leverage that to open pull-up jumpers, or attack the back-pedalling defence deep into the lane.
Yet just as France threatened to pull away, the Boomers fought and clawed. Baynes was a warrior, drawing charges and hitting three-pointers like he's Steph Curry.
The defensive frailties of Patty Mills aside (if anything, he's been too active, often jumping into wrong angles), he continues to be the lone dynamic off-the-bounce threat for the Boomers. Smart teams know this, sitting off Bogut and look to deny Mills the catch. Yet the Boomers simply leverage this, with Mills getting daylight as soon as his defender is mushed by a Bogut screen. And Mills continues to deliver, even nabbing that game-winning steal - the irony is that he threw the ball back towards his own basket.
The prize of victory is the prospect of a clearer path to the medal rounds; the Boomers avoid a confrontation with Team USA until a potential gold medal game.
The road to a medal is now set. The Boomers' quarter-final match up will be against Czech Republic. From this point on, there are no do-overs; lose their next game and their shot at a medal dissipates. Win, and they give themselves two chances, with the hue of metal to be determined.