It was only two weeks ago that a Boomers ‘B’ team – that rested its big four – were 39 points better than Nigeria in Las Vegas.
This time around, in Australia’s Olympic opener, head coach Brian Goorjian had to settle for an 84-67 win after a performance that was as promising as it was sloppy.
There was nothing pretty about the Group B clash inside the Saitama Super Arena, with the two teams combining for 46 turnovers – Australia contributing 22 of their own — in a game where the arena’s buzzer couldn’t even do its job properly.
Still, the Boomers did just enough as their defence — on which they’ve hung their hat — once again proved elite, while the offence mustered what was necessary to pull away late and get over the line.
Two nights after carrying the flag, Patty Mills again played national hero as he drained 25 points. Joe Ingles and Dante Exum were next best with 11 apiece as the Boomers held Nigeria to just 27 points in the second half.
Nigeria, a unit filled with NBA talent that stunned Team USA and Argentina in the lead-up to Tokyo, has built a system on long, multi-dimensional athletes who make things hard for the opposition on defence and push the pace on offence.
And they certainly made life difficult for the Australians as a messy 40 minutes of basketball saw the Boomers walk off the court knowing they’d been in a scrap.
“[We] obviously didn’t play as well as we would have liked,” Mills said post-game. “[But] what we’re trying to do here is team effort and everyone playing their part, and that’s what we did today.
“We talk about staying in the trenches together. That’s what this game was all about. This is what this whole tournament is going to be about.”
With Goorjian’s team entering the competition with defence their main focus, the Boomers got off to the perfect start; forcing 13 first half turnovers. The only problem? Australia had 11 of their own.
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Matisse Thybulle’s dunk with 3:43 left on the clock in the first quarter — a play that started with the US-born Boomer poking the ball loose — came on Nigeria’s seventh turnover as Australia went into the first timeout of the game with a 19-12 lead. A few sloppy minutes later and the two teams went into the second quarter level at 23-23.
Things didn’t get much better in the second period as the two sides traded sloppy possession after sloppy possession, before Australia took a three-point lead into the break.
A defensive stop sandwiched by threes from Matthew Dellavedova and Mills looked to give Australia the push they needed to run away in the third quarter, but the Boomers were once again dragged back into an ugly, physical encounter.
It was only in the fourth quarter, with the Nigerian offence stuck in the mud, that Australia, who shot 46 percent from deep, was able to put some distance between themselves and their African rivals.
Next up, Australia will face Italy, who beat Germany earlier on Sunday to join the Boomers atop the group.
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