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Japan, Gilas ready to ambush Boomers
MELBOURNE (Paulo Kennedy’s view from Downunder) – The Australian Boomers have swept all before them since entering the Asian basketball scene, so this weekend’s trips to Tokyo and Manila should hold no worries, right? Not so fast.
While it’s true the Aussies are 10-0 in the FIBA Asia Cup and FIBA Basketball World Cup qualifiers, the reality is the only opponent they’ve played in enemy territory is Chinese Taipei.
A sold-out Chiba Port Arena, just outside Tokyo, and the cavernous but sure-to-be deafening Philippines Arena are going to present far more challenging environments, especially with both Japan and the Gilas boasting stacked line-ups.
The Japanese have brought in long-time 2.11m import centre Nick Fazekas, who after dipping his toes in the NBA and Europe has carved a quality career in Japan.
They also welcome back exciting forward Rui Hachimura, a standout at the 2017 FIBA U19 World Championship who followed that up with a strong, double-figure scoring season with Gonzaga in the NCAA.
Add to that exciting 2.03m wingman Yuta Watanabe, and the fact the 0-4 Japanese are in dire straits as far as progression to the second round of qualifiers goes, and this should be a far sterner test than the Boomers’ 82-58 win in Adelaide in November, where they bounded away in the final term.
Add to that the fact arguably the most valuable player in the Boomers’ Asia campaign, do-it-all forward Mitch Creek, won’t be in uniform.
His ability to defend multiple positions, fill gaps in the team defence, rebound and trigger the Australian transition game will all be sorely missed, as will his ability to finish plays in style.
Ditto for veteran small forward Brad Newley, who showed all his Olympic and World Cup experience in the Asia Cup final, stepping up after a solid but modest tournament to make some huge plays whenever Iran mounted a challenge.
The late withdrawal of Jesse Wagstaff, who also brings quality disruption on the defensive end and a high-IQ understanding at both ends, is a further blow to a team that has allowed just 65ppg in its four qualifying games to date.
Interestingly, with those three defensive forwards out, coach Andrej Lemanis has loaded up with guards – eight of them suiting up in the green and gold this Friday.
“Obviously with that group we can get a bit more pace in the game, be more aggressive with our up-court defence,” Lemanis said.
The Boomers will lean heavily on the wing defence of Mitch McCarron, who is likely to start at small forward and get the gig on Watanabe.
With Japan’s frontcourt sure to be an offensive focus for coach Julio Lamas, much will also be asked of Angus Brandt, Nick Kay, Daniel Kickert and debutante Thon Maker, stepping into the FIBA game for the first time after a promising season with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Kay is the defensive stud of that group, and is likely to see significant minutes matching up on Philippines import Andray Blatche in the second game of the window.
Maker’s teammate Matthew Dellavedova makes a welcome return to the national team, and he will also get a good workout in Monday’s much-anticipation match-up in Manila.
It’s no secret that as Jayson Castro goes, so go the Philippines, and Dellavedova is likely to get that assignment first up, but the return of Terrence Romeo adds a secondary scoring punch that must be respected. That pair were absent when the Boomers won by 16 points in Melbourne in February.
Romeo can be a match-winner, but under strong defensive pressure can be a liability for the Gilas with his propensity for one-on-one play, which is staggering at times and ball-deflating at others.
Expect Rio Olympian Kevin Lisch to see time on the diminutive dynamo, with Nathan Sobey also a prime suspect. Jason Cadee and Chris Goulding will also need to be at their defensive best when matched up on the Philippines’ key men.
While the Boomers will be less physically imposing that usual, they got some valuable practice at small ball in their recent unofficial three-game series against China.
Kickert, Wagstaff, Cam Gliddon, Goulding and Cadee were Lemanis’ chosen starting line-up for those games, and their team defensive performance was outstanding, particularly in the first two as they suffocated their hosts to wrap up the series without the need for a decider.
Brandt is likely to replace Wagstaff in the opening quintet on Friday night in Chiba to counter Japan’s size, but Kickert is the one likely to be tested.
Lemanis will take confidence in his power forward’s knowledge of his defensive schemes and ability to punish opponents in a variety of ways at the other end.
“His understanding of the system puts him in a position to help and that’s good for the group,” Lemanis said.
“He’s got a real comfort level with how it all operates and he can make plays for himself and also make plays for others.”
And the three-game series, featuring half of the group who will take on Japan and the Philippines, has added a level of comfort for Lemanis on top of his teams’ successful Commonwealth Games campaign in April.
“It’s nice to get a good representation from those guys, particularly given the time of the year where lots of guys aren’t playing (club basketball),” he said.
“Playing games is always a good way to evolve and develop and grow. It’s playing against real competition, they don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what they're doing, so guys have to make reads and you learn a lot out of playing games and hopefully we get a lot out of it.”
Aussie fans will be hoping that makes a difference, because after a very settled Boomers line-up has destroyed opponents with their flawless team play, this window’s line-up is a little bit more of an unknown, and both opponents have plenty to play for in front of their home fans.
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