What the Australian Boomers just did to open their 2023 FIBA World Cup campaign was emphatic... and telling.
They went down in the first quarter and looked stiff, and were on the wrong end of a not-so-great whistle all night, but fought through to absolutely smother Finland, en route to a massive 98-72 win on Friday night.
As has been the case all through their warmup schedule, the Boomers leant on their defence, and got a significant boost from Patty Mills, who overcame a cold shooting spell of late to lead Australia with 25 points.
It was, in effect, a must-win game for the Boomers -- getting out of their group after a loss would've been unbelievably challenging -- and they answered the call with flying colours.
Right now, the Boomers offence needs its defence
At this point, what the Boomers are doing in the half-court offensively still feels a bit clunky. There are signs it'll get there -- and you trust the talent and processes to figure it out -- but there's a level of rigidity to it.
That's why what we saw late in the second quarter, and then beyond, was so important.
It was the introduction of Josh Green, the activity of Xavier Cooks, and impressive ball denial of Jack White; all of which shifted this game for the Boomers. It's the junky defence we saw in the second half of their warmup games vs. France, and it was on show at the end of the first half, leading to stops and easier scores in semi-transition.
After Australia's dominant performance against Finland, ESPN's Kane Pitman had some "burning questions" for Trevor Gleeson.
There's more flow to what the Boomers are capable of offensively when they're able to get stops and push the ball; it's what sparked the 15-4 run going into the half, which completely shifted the momentum of the entire game.
The Boomers are built for long-term success because of how they're able to play defence and, in particular, the different style of coverages they can throw at teams. It'll definitely be the thing that carries them throughout the World Cup, but Friday evening was a good example of how important it is toward keeping things ticking in the short-term too.
Has Brian Goorjian, a defensive-minded coach over the course of his career, had a defensive unit as versatile as this? "No", he answered, postgame.
"We've never had that length and athleticism like that [in Tokyo]... and it was different for Australia. Now, you add Josh Green, you add Xavier Cooks, you add Jack White. We've got more depth there, it's switchable, and even our point guard's 6'8.
"We're small in the five and four, but versatility, I've never had versatility like this, and the depth in versatility that I have now."
That versatility was on show against Lauri Markkanen, who the Boomers clearly zoned in on. The NBA All-Star finished with 19 points, but shot just 7-of-17 from the field and turned the ball over four times. Nick Kay started the game on him, before White got the assignment; the Boomers sending quick doubles to the Finnish big-man and effectively neutralising him.
Patty Mills steps up when it matters
The struggles of the Boomers' co-captain were well-documented going into this World Cup.
Mills shot 6-of-34 from downtown over the course of the Boomers' first four warmup games, and hadn't been able to find his rhythm on the offensive end.
He snapped out of that mini-funk on Friday, leading the scoring effort for Australia and looking like the active, dynamic version of himself that we're used to seeing be unleashed when FIBA tournaments begin.
"We knew he would," Joe Ingles said of Mills' performance.
"No surprises there," White echoed. "We know he can turn it on; that's what he does... he's a hell of a leader and it's what we expect from him."
Mills shot 11-of-22 from the field, including 2-of-8 from downtown, and kept the Boomers within striking range in the second quarter when Finland jumped out to an eight-point lead. He then had another impressive scoring stretch in the game-sealing third quarter, looking in rhythm off the Boomers' signature ball movement, and getting to his spots in the mid-range.
"He's our major offensive threat," Goorjian said.
"His confidence doesn't wane. As we were preparing for the game, we were running stuff for him. Forget [the warmup games], we know the lights are on and we have total belief in him. He's done it time and time again, and we'll continue to go there."
The Exum factor
Danté Exum feels like he'll be this Boomers team's circuit-breaker.
When the flow isn't there, or if shots aren't falling, he's someone who can enter the game and provide a really effective punch of creation. He can play the point or, as Goorjian has repeatedly mentioned, slot in alongside Giddey and score the ball.
We saw glimpses of it throughout Australia's warmup schedule and, in this one, his impact in the third quarter was extremely important for the Boomers. Exum played downhill, creating for himself and others, and hit the three-ball at the improved rate we've seen over the course of his European career.
He finished with 10 points and four assists In this one, leading a 25-14 third quarter that effectively sealed the game for the Boomers, and there's clear trust that he can play that sort of role going forward in this World Cup.
"F--k," Ingles said postgame, of Exum's performance.
"He was huge in Tokyo. He's gone on from there and played really well in Europe... it's the same as Patty: it's what we expect from him now. He's brought it really well the last 18 months. Injuries were something he was dealing with, getting his body right, but I think he's got himself in a really good spot. He knows what to do to be ready for a game, and defensively and offensively he's been huge for us over the last 12 months."