OKINAWA, Japan -- The Australian Boomers looked every bit like a contender in their win over Finland on Friday night, but now comes the real litmus test.
Australia's next game in the First Group Phase of this 2023 FIBA World Cup is against another team that's also considered one of the favourites to win it all: an NBA-heavy Germany side that can match the Boomers from a talent perspective.
WATCH EVERY GAME LIVE ACROSS ESPN AND THE ESPN APP
The Germans are big, have an elite FIBA point guard in Dennis Schroeder, and are one of the only teams who could match the Australians' combination of impressive top-tier talent and depth, so Sunday's matchup is highly-anticipated and could very well have implications beyond just the outcome of the contest.
The Boomers are clearly coming into their own - showing as much in their smothering win over Finland - and have an opportunity to take a commanding lead in what was one of the Groups of Death going into the tournament.
Australia's strategy vs Germany's bigs: 'fight bigger than we are'
When Jock Landale went down with his tournament-ending ankle injury, the first question was immediately: how can the Boomers now compete with the likes of Germany, France, and the other European nations with high-level bigs.
Exhibition game wins over France and Georgia somewhat tempered those fears, as well as the Boomers' World Cup opener against Finland, where they did an impressive job neutralising Lauri Markkanen as well as anyone can on this type of stage.
Now, Australia will be faced with the likes of Moritz Wagner, Daniel Theis, and Johannes Voigtmann; all of whom have shown they can do significant damage inside. The Boomers have had a lot of success not worrying about their size up front and, instead, have leant into the skillsets of the players they have; a tactic that's largely worked, so they're not going to reinvent the wheel in that respect.
"We're not gonna match their size, but we're gonna use our strengths, which is the mobility, things like that," Matt Nielsen, the Boomers' lead assistant, said after Saturday's practice.
"It's us getting comfortable with each other and getting the best out of the situation. Making sure we have to fight bigger than we are.
"We're not your stock-standard team; we don't have Bogut, or Baynes, or Jock. Duop's doing a great job in that part, but it's fun as a coach to have a chance to navigate and manipulate some situations. Guys are doing a great job and I think it's exciting what's coming out. You sub to the bench and there's other versatile bigs coming in."
Australia's athletic, long, mobile, and switchy defensive pieces - and the schemes they're implementing - have caused a lot of issues for teams, and was key to the Boomers turning the momentum in their favour against Finland on Friday.
For Germany, Wagner is coming off a 25-point, 9-rebound game against a much smaller Japan, and will look to carry that form over on Sunday, where he'll likely initially be confronted with one of Duop Reath or Nick Kay.
"Finland's a big team themselves, so it's great preparation for Germany," Kay said on Saturday.
"We're gonna need everyone to step up if we're gonna have a chance to go out there and play for 40 minutes. It's gonna be a 40-minute effort to win.
"Defensively, we can get after it and cause disruption. We're really good. We've got to take care of the ball... we need to be better in that area. And we've got to be able to control the boards as well. We've been good on the offensive boards, but make sure we're there on the defensive as well."
Franz's injury cloud
The German Basketball Federation initially said Wagner was 'day-to-day', before the team's doctor gave more of an update.
"We were able to rule out serious injuries," Germany's team doctor, Oliver Putz, said on Saturday.
"Nothing is broken, torn, or anything like this; things that would end the FIBA World Cup for him. Franz feels better this morning than yesterday. We did another MRI this morning. But, the problem is that we don't have the imaging yet, so we can't say exactly what's hurt yet."
The absence of the younger Wagner would be a significant out for Germany; the 21-year-old is a 6'10, versatile wing who was the team's second-leading scorer at last year's FIBA EuroBasket. He's an elite three-level scoring threat for Gordon Herbert's team, so that would be a giant hole to fill.
Optimism in the Boomers camp
There was a point in the second quarter of the Boomers' game against Finland where the flow and rhythm just didn't seem to be on point just yet... but Australia was still in some level of control of the contest.
It was interesting. It almost felt like the Boomers were down 20, based on the flow of the contest, but they were actually never in any serious trouble.
They then flicked a switch and ran away with the game, but it was a good example of how high the Boomers' ceiling actually is: to still be competitive in a contest, even as things aren't going their way and everything was going their opponents'. As soon as things began to click in the second half, Australia looked unstoppable; impenetrable on the defensive end, while looking as comfortable as they have been over this campaign thus far on the other end.
There are new pieces on this team, while other players are playing different roles, so there's still so much room to grow; whether that's the on-court chemistry with one another, guys like Cooks and White getting better and more comfortable in their respective roles over time, or Josh Giddey becoming more accustomed to being the lead guard in this standard of tournament.
"There's a definite positivity coming out of that, that we're resilient," Nielsen said of the Boomers overcoming Finland after a slow start.
"We know that, but we can't rely on that. That funny balance for us is that, even though we know we can probably grind things out and fight through, we don't wanna put ourselves in those situations we don't have to be."
Who guards Schroeder?
The fun exercise going into most Boomers games is the question of which of the plethora of elite perimeter defenders gets the primary matchup.
Friday night was Markkanen - "The depth of our team, being able to throw multiple bodies at guys like that, is a huge advantage for us," Kay said of defending the NBA All-Star big - and Sunday will be Schroeder, who just signed a new deal with the Toronto Raptors.
The point guard was Germany's leading scorer at the 2022 EuroBasket - averaging 22.1 points per game - and has shown over the years to be a high-level creator in FIBA play.
He had 14 points, five rebounds, and five assists in Germany's win over Japan on Friday, and continues to play with an almost hilarious swagger. Schroeder is the type of point guard who can get under an opponent's skin with his style of play, so who his matchup is will be interesting to track over the course of the game.
Thybulle started at the three for Brian Goorjian on Friday and will likely play the same role on Sunday, so it makes all the sense in the world for the Portland Trail Blazers to get the first crack at Schroeder. Goorjian has often mentioned how big of a fan he is of Josh Green's on-ball defence, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him get a look at him, too. In saying that, Patty Mills' on-ball defence has looked quite impressive thus far during this campaign - especially him annoyingly picking up the ball full court - while there's a world where Giddey's size could cause issues for a player like Schroeder.
We've mentioned it before and we'll say it again: the Boomers' defensive versatility is their identity; it's up and down the roster and the best chance of long-term success at this World Cup is to lean the hell into it.