• Ian Stacker

Salute the Boomers and Opals

Well what can I say about the awesome job the Boomers have done in Rio that hasn’t already been said? I was at a high school tournament at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre on the morning the Boomers were playing the USA, every TV in the place was on the game with large groups of people fixed on the impact the Aussie boys were making against the seemingly invincible US team. It was a telling moment for the sport with every news service giving it plenty of coverage throughout the day and social media raving about the result. The boys played a fantastic game and highlighted the Australian’s playing in the NBA are not at all intimidated by the guys they face each week over the 84 odd game NBA season. It also highlighted the improvement in Patty Mills, Delly, Aaron Baynes and Joe Ingles. Patty in particular plays with a poise and confidence now that is also matched by his improved shooting and team play. Delly has grown into a very capable point guard, no doubt a by-product of a recent NBA championship and plenty of NBA final series games under his belt.

Bogut is the one who has added, not only a very experienced player, but a competitive spirit and winning attitude that has been highly contagious. It’s the first time Bogut and Damien Martin have played together for Australia since they both were key members of the team that won Australia’s last Gold Medal in Men’s basketball at the 2003 Under 19 World Championships held in Greece. Having a background of winning in these events certainly helps your confidence as does playing guys who you play each week in your professional league.

In my pre-Olympic blog I suggested that if the Boomers were 1-3 by this stage I wouldn’t have been surprised but with the big scalps of France, Serbia, a close call with the USA and todays win over China they have assured themselves a spot in the quarter finals and gained the respect of the international basketball community along the way. I wonder if Andrej Lemanis employed some Tzu tactics in the final moments of the US game, he would no doubt be aware that they were now clearly capable of beating the Americans and that if they were going to achieve their dream of the Gold Medal they would probably have to meet them again later in the tournament. A team like the US team is not likely to lose twice at these events. Serbia gave them another close game today, they certainly look beatable but the best time to beat them is in the finals when they don't have a chance to bounce back. Great teams rarely lose two in a row.

However, the moment of truth is fast approaching, when you look at Group B for a preferred opponent none of it looks good. If the quarter finals were now, then their opponent would be Croatia, ironically the first team they beat in a quarter final to make the semi-finals at the 1996 Olympic Games. Problem with playing Croatia now is it’s in Bogut’s blood line, he’s much better playing people he doesn’t particularly like!

Other possible opponents in Group B include Spain, Argentina or Lithuania, none of them inexperienced in quarter final and medal play. In fact, the interesting thing now will be to see how these teams approach their final games of the round robin phase and calculate how they can avoid the USA until the medal round. Right now Spain would have them in the quarter final, Spain is the last team to win a major tournament other than the Americans at the 2006 World Championships in Japan although it was Greece who took out the Yanks in the semi-finals. So keep an eye on Group B to see who ends up in fourth place.

I have been so conditioned over the years to disappointment with the Boomers I am somewhat anxious about the looming quarter final, the Boomers have created some awesome momentum and with that some great expectation, delivering on the expectations would be an enormous boost for basketball, another early exit in games that matter would be another disaster. Here’s hoping the momentum can be maintained, the Country is certainly behind them.

The Opals at this point are 4-0 after surviving a close call with Japan Friday morning. They have had a significant win against the French but have struggled to look like the number two team in the world in their other three games. Liz Cambage saved the game against Japan and Penny Taylor was a genuine star against France. They have started poorly in every game so far being behind at quarter time in all games except the French game where they led by 2 points. So slow starts? Perhaps there could be some issue with the starting group? It was certainly interesting to see who played all the minutes in the final quarter of the game against Japan where they started the quarter down 12 points. You’d think they’d go with their best players, the ones you usually start with, but it didn’t go down that way…….it reminds me of a story;

When we were selecting my National Young Men’s team in 1997 one of the tough decisions we had to make was whether to take two small point guards, popular opinion by the BA minds of the day was that point guards were all getting bigger and that the days of the short guards were numbered. (Mills and Dellavedova are glad we’ve moved past those ideas.) I had the view that Frank Drmic had the potential to run the point for us – I had seen Frank since he was about 14 years old through all the development camps we ran at Basketball Victoria, he often ran the point at these camps and was very tough. I had also seen Andrew Gaze from about the same age and I think Frank had as much potential at about the same age. It didn’t work out as well for Frank for a variety of reasons but at the time he was certainly one of the best prospects in the Country.

After much discussion about the merits of taking the two small guards I eventually decided to give the 12th spot to South Australian Brad McKinnon, a feisty, competitive ball of muscle to pair up with the other pocket rocket and another South Australian Brendan Mann. Two small point guards who I’d always pick one and two if I was heading into a bar fight. They were my plan B if things didn’t go well with Drmic.

In 1997 Drmic had signed with the South East Melbourne Magic. In 1996 I had left the Magic after 8 years as assistant coach to be Head Coach with the Geelong Supercats. After my first year with the Supercats the owner decided to sell the license back to the NBL as part of the brilliant idea to change to a summer season, luckily I was able to come back to the Magic and I was hopeful that I could convince Brian Goorjian to develop Drmic as a point guard. Brian wasn’t too interested in that idea which ended up making it more difficult for him to play that spot on the National Yong Men’s team.

Anyway, after four games of the 1997 World Championships when we had a 2-2 record it was apparent that Frank wasn’t handling the Point Guard spot well, it wasn’t the only issue for us but it was one thing that we could change that could make a difference. I had to suck it up, acknowledge that perhaps I had made a judgement error in starting Frank at the point and go to Plan B. Enter Brendan Mann into the starting line, exchanging minutes with Brad McKinnon and we never looked back, going undefeated from that point and winning the World Championship.

Now perhaps Brendan Joyce’s cunning plan will involve some change in his rotations, maybe it won’t, but it appears to me at the moment they aren’t playing the best basketball.

Another analogy I use to explain the position of the Opals is that if I (Ian Stacker) was to start on the same team as Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant & Kobe Bryant, then be backed up by some other useful NBA players then I think we would still win the Gold Medal. My role may be somewhat limited, I’d probably be a liability in every facet of the game, I would really talk it up though and give it my best effort but the reality is we would be better without me on the floor. It has nothing to do with my effort, it just has to do with the fact that I’m not as good as some of the guys sitting on the bench.

Another issue for the Opals is the fitness of Liz Cambage. She was a dominating factor in the final quarter of the game against the Japanese, she is a dominating force in women’s basketball. Brendan has had to manage her minutes on two fronts, she gets in foul trouble and she is clearly not in the best shape for Olympic competition. I think the two go hand in hand, from my observations over the years, players who are having trouble keeping up with the pace of the game tend to get in foul trouble. Fouls stop the game which gives them a break and if they get two in the first quarter then they get subbed out, pick up a third in the second then they get subbed out and so on. Foul trouble gives them a rest, it may not be on purpose but it tends to be how it happens and Liz has certainly sat a lot in the games so far, given she is such a dominating factor it certainly hurts the Opals when she is on the bench.

The Opals need to be playing their best basketball next week, when the medal rounds roll around, if Brendan is unable to manage Liz’s minutes well she is going to be very fatigued by the time the meaningful games roll around. Given the lean, fit and athletic looking US team this could be a big issue for them.

Penny Taylor is the X factor for the Opals, she is a bona fide champion of the game, one of Australia’s best ever players, ahead of any of our male players in her standing in the game, if she is hot, healthy and feeling good about life then anything is possible for the Opals.

Given the Opals haven’t been able to put away the less fancied teams earlier Taylor and Cambage have been forced to play more minutes than perhaps necessary, this could be telling by the end of the tournament when everyone needs to be playing at their best.

Next week holds great opportunity for Australian Basketball, our Opals and Boomers are in the box seat, let’s hope all goes well and we have both teams bringing home medals.

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