Team USA is vulnerable in Tokyo. Can Australia mount a worthy challenge?
When the ball tips in international men's play, Australia's fate is to finish fourth.
The 2019 FIBA World Cup. Rio's Olympics in 2016. At home at the 2000 Games in Sydney, and in Atlanta four years earlier, and Seoul eight years before that. Worse outcomes - quarterfinal exits and the like - pockmark the country's historical record, but the Boomers haven't medalled in 26 combined trips to the World Cup and Olympics. Conversely: The United States has won six of the last seven Olympic titles, powered by Dream Teams, Redeem Teams, and B teams that overcame mass superstar withdrawals to beat the field anyway.
Every basketball country chases Team USA, envying their success and plotting retribution. Australia managed that for 40 minutes this month in Las Vegas. Damian Lillard canned six threes and Draymond Green swatted four shots, but neither contribution mattered when Australia won the July 12 exhibition clash 91-83.
The Americans flopped again Sunday, flatlining late in their Tokyo opener to lose 83-76 to France. Dealt an Olympic defeat for the first time since 2004, adversity is threatening to end their reign. This past NBA season was a grind. COVID-19 protocols cost Bradley Beal his Tokyo roster spot. Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Devin Booker left late for Japan, a quarter of the lineup preoccupied with day jobs until the buzzer sounded on The Finals. Their transpacific flight landed 20 hours before the France game started.
U.S. Olympic squads often rebut premature doubts. Remember 2016? Beal, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard all declined Rio invites, and then Team USA stomped Serbia in the final by 30 points.
Those guys are at home again, and the U.S. needs to earn that trust anew because the rest of the 12-country field can plain hoop. Nigeria drained 20 threes in Vegas to edge the U.S. in tuneup play; Evan Fournier torched them for 28 points Sunday before the world's eyes. Australia awaits another crack.
Australia is grouped at the Olympics with Germany, Italy, and the Nigerians, whom it beat 84-67 as part of Sunday's opening slate.
The blowout was nice, but the Boomers have a bigger hump to clear. Before we compare Patty Mills to rival No. 1 options at the tournament, it's worth scanning Australia's history of medal-round letdowns.
Seoul 1988: At the last Olympic tournament that didn't feature NBA players, Andrew Gaze, Australia's all-time top scorer, aimed to steal the show. Gaze averaged 23.9 points and carried the Aussies far, but his starriest teammate, future NBA champion Luc Longley, was still a teenager. Team USA trounced them 78-49 for bronze, springboarding college standouts Dan Majerle, Mitch Richmond, and David Robinson to great NBA careers.
Sydney 2000: The signature memory of these Games is Vince Carter in flight, clearing French seven-footer Frederic Weis' head for a dunk in the preliminary round. France rebounded to rout Australia in the semifinals, and home support wasn't enough to net Gaze a medal at his fifth Olympics. Lithuania whipped his squad 89-71 for bronze.
Rio 2016: This one stung. Downed by the U.S. in the group stage and pumped by Serbia in a 26-point semifinal loss, Australia bounced back to scare Spain with bronze on the line. Mills dropped 30 points. Nine seconds remained when Aron Baynes' skyhook put Australia up by one. Then Sergio Rodriguez drove the lane toward Mills, drew faint contact, and was rewarded with two free throws, which he nailed to seal an 89-88 win.
Beijing 2019: One non-Olympic example from the FIBA World Cup, where France bounced Team USA in the quarterfinals to consign the Americans to seventh place. The Australians failed to capitalize on the opening. Spain outlasted the team in double overtime in the semis, spoiling Mills' 34-point night. Facing France for third, Australia led a defensive struggle by nine at the interval but sputtered to 29 second-half points and lost 67-59.
Making deep international runs is hard, and on the bright side, the fact Australia keeps nearing podiums is a credit to the national talent pool. Beginning with Longley and Gaze, who briefly headed stateside in the 1990s, 23 Australian-born players have suited up in the NBA, eight of them in 2020-21. Two caveats: Will Magnay logged a mere three minutes this year for the New Orleans Pelicans, and the tally also includes Kyrie Irving, who was born in Melbourne but moved to New Jersey as a toddler.
Still, only five countries - the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, and Serbia - have produced more NBA players. Half of the Boomers' Tokyo roster is active in the league: Baynes, Mills, Dante Exum, Josh Green, Joe Ingles, and Matisse Thybulle. That's in addition to Matthew Dellavedova, the irritant guard and fan favorite in Cleveland who returned home this month to sign with Melbourne United of the National Basketball League.
The NBL, whose MVP award is named for Gaze, recently incubated LaMelo Ball during his age-18 season. Before the Hornets drafted him third overall last year, Ball quelled doubts about his maturity and killer instinct over a dozen games with the Illawarra Hawks. That he's now the NBA's Rookie of the Year bodes well for Josh Giddey's transition. At 18, the Adelaide 36ers guard almost made the Boomers' Tokyo roster, and he enters Thursday's NBA draft as a potential lottery pick.
This is all to say that interesting basketball things are happening Down Under. Medaling in Tokyo would be the sweetest breakthrough, validating Mills' 15 years of service to the national program. The 32-year-old San Antonio Spurs guard, steady off the bench throughout his NBA career, morphs into a gunner on the world stage. In the exhibition win over the U.S., Mills played a team-high 30 minutes and scored 22 points on 21 field-goal attempts. He's launched that many shots in just six of his 829 NBA games, regular season or playoffs.
Mills and swimmer Cate Campbell carried Australia's flag in Tokyo last Friday, a couple of four-time Olympians sharing the honor at the opening ceremony. The Boomers followed his lead against Nigeria, too: Mills' 25 points, five threes, and six assists were game highs. Up by four points with Nigeria rallying to open the fourth quarter, Mills faked a backdoor cut and hustled to the wing, splashing a trey to help prevent any comeback.
Tokyo's Olympic rosters boast a record 49 current NBA players, who represent every country at the tournament but Iran. Blueprints for medal contention vary by team.
Luka Doncic's presence alone elevates Slovenia. Fournier and Rudy Gobert front a deeper French lineup that put the clamps on the United States' many bucket-fillers Sunday. Led by Ricky Rubio and Marc Gasol, Spain's core has matured together and won the 2019 World Cup, continuity and composure prevailing in the clutch. Stocked with NBA role players from Precious Achiuwa to Josh Okogie, Nigeria is seeking its first trip to the Olympic knockout round. Shoot well the rest of the way and Africa's finest have a shot.
Notably, Australia is without Ben Simmons, maybe Tokyo's highest-profile absentee after the likes of LeBron and Curry.
Simmons didn't play at the 2016 Olympics - he opted to prepare separately for his jump to the NBA - nor the World Cup in 2019. Reluctant to shoot and unable to hit a free throw as the Philadelphia 76ers crashed out of the playoffs, salvaging his offensive game this summer is the new priority. Trade rumors encircle Simmons, and he posted workout photos on Instagram on his 25th birthday last week, writing that he's seen highs and "some of the lowest lows" along his ongoing journey.
Him and the Boomers both. Mills said postgame Sunday that the Aussie leadership group has taken lumps together, mindful of what went down in Rio and Beijing. Ingles, a fellow Summer Games fourth-timer, was cold offensively against Nigeria - both teams shot a grimy 39% from the field - but pitched in around the edges. Veteran NBL forward Nic Kay put up 12 points and eight rebounds. Exum and Thybulle will continue to be counted on as spark plugs, deployed to score and shackle opposing initiators when the starters sit.
Group-stage play in Tokyo continues all week. Australia faces Italy on Wednesday (when the U.S. goes up against Iran) and Germany on Saturday (when the U.S. plays the Czech Republic).
If Australia meets Team USA next week in the knockout stage, it'll take all hands to negate the Americans' pace, length, and shotmaking - assuming the U.S. even comes close to peaking in time. Jet lagged but engaged, Holiday was his team's only energizer against France, netting 12 straight fourth-quarter points that Fournier nullified late with his go-ahead three. Praise the defense that Gobert anchors while faulting Booker, Lillard, Kevin Durant, and Jayson Tatum, who combined to shoot 11-of-37 from the floor. Adieu, 25-game Olympic win streak.
Basically, what we learned Sunday is that France is legit at both ends of the floor. Like Mills, Fournier's country can trust him to fire away. And history is moot the moment the ball tips.
Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.