Throughout group play at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the Australian men’s national basketball team sent a message to anyone and everyone who was watching: we’re tough, we’re talented, we’re not going to be pushed around, and we’re ready to compete at the highest levels of international basketball. They reinforced that message on Wednesday, opening the quarterfinals of the men’s basketball tournament with a dominating 90-64 victory over Lithuania — the nation that eliminated Australia at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics — that puts the Boomers one win away from the medal round for the first time in 16 years.
One day after watching their heavily favored women’s side stunned by underdog Serbia, the Australian men opened the game bombing away from deep, using their combination of sharp off-ball cutting, stiff screens and smart ball movement to generate seven 3-point tries in the first six minutes, and taking an early lead they’d never relinquish. Lithuania’s defenders struggled to track the constant motion throughout the game, and Australia’s high-powered backcourt took advantage, with Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs pouring in a game-high 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting and Matthew Dellavedova of the Milwaukee Bucks adding 15 points on a 5-for-12 mark. The two NBA champions fueled Australia’s long-range attack, combining to shoot 9-for-18 from the 3-point arc in a performance that put Lithuania behind the 8-ball early and built a lead too big for the Europeans to overcome.
The Aussie big men once again played a major role, too. Center Andrew Bogut of the Dallas Mavericks continued to look more lithe and spry than he has in some time as he orchestrated things on both ends, pitching in six points, seven rebounds and a team-high six assists in just under 20 minutes of floor time. Power forward Aron Baynes remained a brutalizing force in the paint, adding 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting with five rebounds and three assists off the bench while keying the signature physical style that’s generated some grumbling in the tournament, but that helped Australia to a sterling 4-1 finish in group play and put it in prime position to claim its first-ever Olympic medal in men’s hoops.
Captain David Andersen (six points, six rebounds three assists) and forward Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz (10 points, five assists, two rebounds and two steals) provided a veteran presence and productive minutes for Australia, who shot 52 percent from the field as a team and dished 30 assists on 33 made baskets against just nine turnovers, offering some indication of just how in sync the Boomers continue to be on the offensive end. The same couldn’t be said for the Lithuanians, who opened the game shooting themselves in the foot — six turnovers in the first eight minutes, several possession-scuttling offensive fouls, multiple fouls of Australian jump-shooters in the act of shooting — and kept getting in their own way throughout, coughing it up 17 times for 28 Aussie points.
Lithuanian guard Mantas Kalnietis was one of the stars of the group stage, averaging 19.2 points and eight assists per game while grading out as arguably the round’s top individual performer. But he struggled at times with the physical defense of Dellavedova and Damian Martin, finishing with 12 points on 6-for-13 shooting and five assists in 30 minutes in the loss, which ends Lithuania’s bid for an Olympic medal in the quarterfinals for the second straight Summer Games.
Early foul trouble for forward Jonas Maciulis, a strong defender and shooter in the starting lineup, contributed to Lithuania’s early issues, but Lithuania’s offense was productive enough to compete in the first quarter when they weren’t fumbling catches, booting loose balls, committing inopportune fouls and turning the ball over. Over the course of the game, though, the inability to establish a consistent interior presence against Australia’s tough bigs — Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas remained a disappointment in the post, scoring just five points with eight rebounds in the loss, and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Domantas Sabonis managed just one point on three shots in 14 minutes — and a lack of consistent long-range shooting (just 4-for-15 from 3-point range as a team) doomed Lithuania’s chances of fighting fire with fire.
A string of stops and baskets early in the second half got Lithuania within 14, but the Aussies responded with a roar, ripping off a 9-0 run with backcuts and big shots to extend a lead that would get as high as 32, and extend the Lithuanian medal drought to 16 years. Australia, for its part, now moves on to face the winner of Wednesday night’s quarterfinal matchup between Croatia and Serbia. (The Aussies beat Serbia by 15 in their second game of group play.)
The Boomers will enter that matchup as a clear favorite to advance to the gold-medal game, and a real threat to take out absolutely anybody they might meet there.
“This team, playing like this, can beat the USA,” said NBC Sports Network analyst Fran Fraschilla. “No doubt about it.”
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