As Australia carved up the vaunted USA men’s basketball team with yet another backdoor cut, you could imagine the Serbian and French players feeling a little better about themselves.
Both of those teams entered this Olympic tournament as the top challengers to Team USA in Group A. Both of those teams left their games against Australia dizzy from the Boomers’ chaotic player movement and bruised from an avalanche of vicious Andrew Bogut screens.
Team USA understands their pain. Though the Americans escaped with a 10-point victory, they weren’t any more successful at slowing the Boomers’ equal-opportunity system. Only clutch shot making from Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving saved the U.S. from its first international defeat in a decade.
Even in victory, Team USA’s performance should make Mike Krzyzewski’s blood boil because it fits the rough outline of inattention that caused the program’s lowest moments a decade ago. But as France and Serbia can attest, it’s really difficult to stop Australia’s offensive system in a FIBA game. There’s a reason Team USA had a lot of trouble doing it, and it goes beyond taking the Boomers lightly.
There are rough parallels between this Australia offense and the spread pick-and-roll attacks of '04 Argentina and '06 Greece that flummoxed Team USA. All three teams moved the ball beautifully and caught Team USA’s perimeter defenders napping at critical points.
But as the NBA slowly adopted the style that defined top international teams of the past, their competitive advantages faded. Top American teams could spread the floor and play with pace in half-court situations, except with far better players. It wasn’t enough to simply spread them out anymore and use speed to confuse them.
Australia’s approach adds an important layer on top of the old formula. Aided by FIBA’s more physical style, Andrej Lemanis, the team’s resourceful coach, has built an offensive system that takes advantage of his roster’s two biggest strengths: the off-ball speed of Patty Mills and the bone-crushing screens of big man Andrew Bogut. Together, Mills and Bogut form the bedrock of a system that combines speedy guards, multiple playmakers and big men that operate in the high post while flocking to anyone in the vicinity that can be picked off.
Bogut’s screen setting is the key to unlocking Australia’s potential. He has always been one of the NBA’s best at getting teammates open, but as he’s aged, the speed of the NBA game and his inability to score has chipped away at that skill. Increasingly, he’s been unable to move himself into proper position, choosing instead to compensate with tactics that may or may not be legal. If not for his reputation, he would have been called for far more offensive fouls.
Despite a knee injury that recently ended his NBA Finals, he looks revived in Rio. Because the three-point line is shorter, FIBA teams run their offenses within a smaller surface area, which allows Bogut to get into proper screening position on the move more effectively. That allows Lemanis to layer cascading off-ball movement on top of crushing Bogut screens that get players open.
In a sense, this style actually resembles what the Warriors did with Bogut at center. Mills isn’t Stephen Curry of course, but he’s supremely quick for a FIBA guard and is very dangerous shooting off screens. Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova don’t come close to resembling Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala, but they can each handle the ball as Mills swerves around Bogut. And while Australia certainly can’t bomb threes like the Splash Brothers, it generates enough confusion through movement to allow Bogut to slide in and give Mills or anyone else the separation they need to shoot or drive.
Bogut is more than just a screen setter. He remains a beautiful passer, which helps him slip passes in tight spaces to make up for the spacing crunch that comes from starting two centers.
And while Bogut’s scoring ability completely fell off the map in the NBA over the past few years, his lefty hooks and little runners have returned in Rio. Whenever Team USA left him, he made them pay.
It’s overstating it to expect Bogut to carry this level of production over to Dallas next year. FIBA play is contested in tighter quarters, which masks Bogut’s lack of foot speed and puts him closer to more bodies to bounce straight into his large chest -- or anywhere else on his body, really. FIBA referees are more judicious with screening contact, so Bogut gets away with some of the more underhanded tactics that might be called in the NBA.
In Rio, though, his presence is essential in getting other Boomers open. Bogut is great at down screens, ball screens, back screens and any other sort of screen Australia needs. That skill, combined with Australia’s many playmakers in Mills, Dellavedova and Ingles, allows Lemanis to set up an offense that tosses in a decoy action on one side while simultaneously running a second option on the other. Defenses aren’t ready for Bogut’s screens and can’t recover once they make their impact.
As Wednesday’s game went along, Team USA tried switching all of these actions, much like the Cavaliers switched away to stifle the Warriors’ offense in the NBA Finals. In theory, this is a fine solution to the style Australia plays. But such an approach requires a level of defensive coordination that’s tough for any national team to achieve with so little practice time. Bogut has made a living slipping to the basket against FIBA teams that mistime their off-ball switches.
All this makes Australia’s offense a riddle that even a dominant Team USA cannot fully solve. In a short international tournament like the Olympics, it’s hard to see anyone that can execute the air-tight scheme needed to hold the Boomers’ scoring down. If Team USA faces Australia again in the gold medal game, they may have to accept that Australia will score against them and hope its own offense is even better. Better preparation should help, but Australia forces opponents to make so many decisions that it’s hard for opponents keep track of all the items on the scouting report in real time. And as soon as opponents get a handle on what’s actually happening on the floor, they’re slammed out of the play by a Bogut lead block.
In an international world where traditional powers like France and Spain are on the downswing, Australia’s Bogut-heavy system has allowed them to fill the power vacuum next to Team USA. The Boomers shouldn’t relinquish that spot, not with young stars like Ben Simmons, Thon Maker and Dante Exum on the way. Wednesday should only be the first close battle in a budding international rivalry.
But that way-way-way-closer-than-expected game against Team USA was also a warning shot to the other teams in this tournament. Australia has the goods on an offensive system that can get them a medal right now. And if the U.S. isn’t careful in a potential rematch, maybe there’s a tiny chance that medal will be a different color than anyone could have possibly expected.