The Boomers can secure themselves their first ever medal at a major tournament with a victory over Spain tomorrow night. They have often spoken of the hurt from Rio, stemming from that bronze medal game against the Spanish, and how that pain has driven them forward. There was a palpable steeliness to them after their win over the Czech Republic, knowing that a medal was on offer, and understanding who their opponents would be.
Spain needs no introduction; Rio history aside, Spain's star players, and the nursery that produces them, are well known. They will start a line-up who all possess NBA experience; Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, Junacho Hernangomez, Victor Claver and Marc Gasol form a formidable quintet.
Gasol, their NBA champion and most accomplished player, is the fulcrum for Spain on both ends of the floor, and the player to monitor. In many ways, he is an amalgamation of the Boomers' 5-men skillset. His sublime passing skills (he is the equal of Bogut in that regard) almost seem underrated now, such is its monotonous regularity, and of course, he has the offence to either beefcake someone in the post, or loft soft jumpers to space the offence, much like Baynes.
Gasol is the pulsating hub in which the Spanish offence operates; Ricky Rubio (and Sergio Llull when he comes into the game) probes around his wide, beefy screens. He has a delightful short distance pinball-passing synergy (it's almost as though he thumbs his nose at lowly dribble hand-offs) with those two at the top of the arc.
The Boomers do not need to send any help for Gasol post-ups.
On defence, Gasol drops deep in the Bogut mould, surveying the landscape and literally anchoring himself in the lane, especially now that he can camp there in FIBA play. He is less mobile than his Australian counterparts, and he is not a rim protector in the vertical sense. Rather, he uses his smarts and positioning. The Boomers can thrive if they commit to attacking the paint, rather than bailing after seeing a large human in their path.
In Baynes and Bogut, Gasol faces also a two-headed monster at the centre position that poses different challenges. Gasol is very reluctant to guard up to the perimeter - he is more likely to allow Baynes airspace. The question is whether the Boomers can capitalise.
Baynes sports a ridiculous true shooting mark of 69.2 percent, per RealGM. I did not see his efficiency sustaining across the tournament.
His inspired three-point shooting from the five-spot has given the Boomers the perfect release valve, and antidote, for opposing fives who try to clog the lane (hi, Marc). He is 8-of-15 from beyond the arc, but those 8 three-point makes were all against Lithuania and France (he was 8-of-11 for those two games). He has improbably cashed in those looks when it was truly needed.
Gasol would prefer the Bogut match up, but that poses a different challenge for him. If he sits back against a non-shooter such as Bogut, Patty Mills will rain open triple after open triple, once his defender is mushed by a Bogut step-up screen; Mills has only needed to sight the ring in order to let it fly.
That is perhaps Spain's greatest challenge in navigating the minefield of screens that unlock Mills. If Spain blitzes those actions, how will their backline rotation fare?
Willy Hernangomez is far more mobile and active on his feet, defending up to the level of the screen. However, he does not have the playmaking chops, and is a finisher in that second unit when Gasol takes a breather. His athleticism provides Spain with a rim-running presence which opens up space for Llull to operate in the half-court dance.
Elsewhere, Rudy Fernandez will pose a significant standstill perimeter shooting threat - he's shooting 46.4 percent from deep with his uncanny release. He is not the springy version of old, but he is a fearless shot-maker nonetheless.
Juancho Hernangomez is another three-point release valve; he will be their "3-and-D" guy, and can (and will) switch across multiple positions. Rubio is at 47.6 percent from beyond the arc, but the rest of the roster has been iffy from distance. As a team, they are shooting an icy 32.4 percent from beyond the arc. Gasol is at a ghastly 16.7 percent from three attempts per game. Collectively, the Boomers have the distinct shooting advantage.
Rubio may have seemingly lost the joyousness that has come to define his game in his early years, but Llull has retained it - he is a delight as he gallivants down the floor, head on swivel. The Spanish offence picks up a gear when he is inserted. Rubio defers to him. The impact of Llull's exuberance - guys like him and Argentina's Facundo Campazzo - almost cannot be measured empirically. Matthew Dellavedova has been deployed as the disruptor for the head of the snake of the opposition, so expect him to chase Rubio and then Llull. How disciplined the Boomers are in defending Rubio and Llull off the pick-and-roll will be crucial - their stay-at-home-on-shooters scheme can thwart the Spanish offence.
Llull is only shooting 32.8 percent from the field, including 25 percent from three-point range, but you almost disregard those numbers for a big-game player in these one-off games. Expect Mills to defend his former Trail Blazers teammate in Fernandez. Teams have tried to exploit Mills' size throughout the tournament by running actions at him - the by-product is also to tire him and mute his offensive impact. If Spain runs post ups for Fernandez, the Boomers should absolutely embrace it. Anything that tilts their attack away from the Rubio/Llull/Gasol triumvirate is a win. In any case, Andrej Lemanis has been quick to shift Mills around the chessboard if there is risk, throwing Dellavedova, Joe Ingles or Mitch Creek to douse any enemy offensive embers.
It seems reductive to mention it at this stage of the tournament (the level rises the deeper you go, after all), but the Spanish perimeter defence will be disciplined. They have a gaggle of good athletes who rotate well in the half-court, are smart and hold their shape. They run back in transition to thwart those easy looks. The Boomers will need to work the ball against this opponent - there can be no prolonged periods of stagnant player and ball movement. If they move the ball, cycle through their actions enough, something will strain on the defensive end for Spain. They will need to control their turnovers (duh).
Per RealGM, the defensive ratings of Spain's primary rotation is scary good. Fernandez, Pau Ribas, Willie Hernangomez and Gasol are all top 10 in their respective positions. Rubio, Llull, Victor Claver and Juancho Hernangomez are all top 12. Sometimes defensive ratings can be a bit hit-and-miss, but that does paint a formidable picture for the Boomers. They are not an ultra-athletic group, but rather a scrambling unit.
Pierre Oriola is a Nick Kay clone - he just does his job, keeps it simple, and always rotates to the split line. He will slot in seamlessly if he is preferred ahead of Victor Claver.
Spain are a daunting matchup, but the Boomers can beat them. Spain will yield, and have yielded, three-point looks, preferring to lock down the paint. Their game against Poland was instructive in how much they privileged corralling the ball-handler and roll-man, happy to trust their rotations to scamper back out to contest three-point shooters. The Boomers can capitalise if they probe the middle - they will be in trouble if they shortcut the process.
Ingles has hit some incredibly clutch step-back daggers from deep. But for the tournament, he is 9-of-27 from three-point territory overall. That mark has been offset by the better-than-expected perimeter shooting success of Baynes, of Jock Landale, and even from the reworked jumper of Dellavedova. Goulding has been dependable.
This is the Boomers' double-chance for a medal, but they will be determined to show that they only need the one opportunity.