Melbourne, Australia • It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience.
Team USA hadn’t lost a competitive senior game since 2006, in the semis of the FIBA World Championship. Australia hadn’t ever defeated the US in a senior game, having lost 25 times in a row.
But in front of 52,000 chanting and cheering fans in a packed Aussie-rules football stadium, the Boomers pulled off a stunning 98-94 upset of Team USA, making exactly clear how much more work this weakened version of the American squad has left before the World Cup begins next week.
The Australians’ full 40-minute performance started with Jazzman Joe Ingles in control, looking like the best player on the floor in the game’s first half. Time and time again, the Aussies ran middle pick-and-roll with Ingles and either Andrew Bogut or Aron Baynes setting the screens, and time and time again, Ingles made the right read, either driving to the rim or finding the open man. After looking a little out of the game in Thursday’s USA win, Ingles was the driving force early Saturday.
“He was more impactful, and a lot of it was how the way we chose to utilize him,” Australia head coach Andrej Lamanis said. “He’s a quality player with the ball, makes good decisions, and we need to ensure we’re using all of the pieces at our disposal.”
A third-quarter USA run looked like it would lead to a repeat of Thursday’s game, but this time, Australia clawed back from their 10-point deficit to re-tighten the game by the fourth.
And a compelling fourth quarter it was. Kemba Walker’s scoring — he led the Americans with 22 points — continued to be really the only thing the Australians really had consistent trouble with, but the Aussies answered with huge baskets. With 3:36 left, Ingles hit a stand-still, late shot clock three over Myles Turner, to regain the lead for the Boomers, a lead they’d never relinquish.
But Ingles’ shot was only the opener for the Patty Mills show. Mills scored Australia’s last 10 baskets, including a banked-in three and two compelling, critical pull-up makes in the midrange. In the end, Mills was the game’s leading scorer, finishing with 30 points on 10-22 shooting.
“Patty’s a pain in the a–,” USA Basketball head coach Gregg Popovich wryly noted of Mills after the game, though he would later call him a “beautiful man.” He would know: the two work together for the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA season.
Ingles’ Jazz teammate, Donovan Mitchell, tried to carry the Americans back in the contest with two important shots late, cutting the Australian lead twice with a pull-up two and three. But while his game-tying look was on-line, it ended just short. A subsequent open corner three by NBA 3-point champion missed as well, and the Boomers had clinched the win.
Mitchell, besides his short flurry late, finished with only other two made baskets, scoring 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting with only one rebound and assist. Two injuries further marred the game for Team USA, with former University of Utah forward Kyle Kuzma sitting out of the game with a sore left ankle, while point guard Derrick White left the game with a head injury in the fourth quarter.
For the Australians, it was a massive moment for their basketball program. Yes, the game was just an exhibition, but a win against Team USA in a packed house shows the progress of the team in what is considered a growing, but still minor sport in their country.
“We really showed the direction we want to play and how we want to play,” Ingles, who finished with 15 points and a game-high seven assists, said. “We’ll enjoy it tonight, but obviously, back to work tomorrow.”
But for the Americans, the Aussies showed just how much more work is left to do. Consistently, the underdogs were the more cohesive team — while they moved the ball around for open looks, USA only had 11 assists on 30 made field goals, reflective of just how much one-on-one ball the Americans played.
“We looked discombobulated at times, made some poor decisions,” Popovich said. “Some of it is expected with a new group that’s trying to learn about each other and learn a system. It’s not surprising, but the Aussies gave us a great lesson as far as how you have to play in this kind of competition.”
They have just one more warmup game in which to learn that lesson, a battle against Canada in Sydney on Monday, before the World Cup begins next weekend.