"It was a legit thing, until Coach K intervened."
It's impossible to watch Kyrie Irving being guarded by Matthew Dellavedova and not think about what might have been. Had Brett Brown and Basketball Australia managed to persuade him to play for Australia at London 2012 as a 19 year old, with the promise of another three Olympic journeys all but guaranteed, this current team would easily be the most talented side in Boomers history and likely the primary challenge to the US. Factor in the idea of a Tokyo 2020 team led by a 27 year old prime Kyrie with fellow No 1 draft pick Ben Simmons, plus a healthy Dante Exum, an experienced Thon Maker and Aron Baynes, and a veteran Patty Mills and you start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, we might have been within striking distance of the Goliath that is Team USA.
But it was not to be; just one more reason to despise Coach K and Duke. Much like Nike's rumoured influence on the final selection of the USA roster, Coach K has leveraged his position as Head of the Men's National Team to attract top tier talent to Chapel Hill, and he undoubtedly affected Irving's decision to elect to represent the US. "He strong-armed me," said Irving. "As a young fella, he did tell me I had a chance to be a part of something bigger than myself. He said, 'You could be the starting point guard on the U.S. Olympic team.'"
You have to remember that Kyrie played 11 games in 2010 before a toe injury ended his collegiate career. While he was hyped as a prospect, the depth of American point guards available for selection and gunning for a spot meant that even making the US team was far from a certainty, especially for a score first player like Irving. Even after being drafted No 1, it's hard to imagine Kyrie would have received an invite to tryout for the 2012 US team if not for the Duke connection and Coach K keeping one eye on the future. Let the kid see the sights, play some scrimmage, trash talk Kobe. The rich get richer, but I can't knock the hustle I guess. It was a long term investment that paid off much faster than anyone could have possibly anticipated.
But you know who else's hustle you most certainly cannot knock? Delly, that's who. We got our NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers point guard for Rio, it just wasn't quite how we initially envisioned it. And he went out there tonight like it was a Cavs practice session, determined to take it to Irving. 11 points, 11 assists, hounding defence and an efficiency rating second only to Carmelo Anthony. It was all the best parts of his game on display. There were times where Kyrie was actively hurting the US, especially on defence. It took him coming alive in the fourth quarter to start making buckets and an almost identical recreation of his Game 7 Finals pull up three to seal the win... which I guess makes the Boomers the Warriors in this situation, albeit with less nut shots and thrown mouthguards.
But to be fair, there were times where just about everyone was actively bad. This wasn't just rotations not gelling and some poor team ball movement. This was the hardnosed defence down the line for the Boomers, holding the US to shooting 39% from the field (39%!!!).This is a team with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, two of greatest shooters in basketball history. They shot 2 of 9 and 4 of 16 respectively. Comparatively, the crisp passing and ball movement of the Boomers against this US performance did feel Warrioresque at times – they managed to shoot 58% on 2 pointers and generated plenty of high percentage 3 point shots. Aside from another stellar shooting performance by Patty Mills, they just couldn't make the most of those opportunities. If they had been a little closer to the Warriors from downtown...
Speaking of the Warriors, the recently departed from Oakland Andrew Bogut played pretty much the best version of his game in this one, showing why he was a key component of the 73-9 season. Excellent rim protection, sharp passing, and most importantly bone crunching screens. The biggest advantage the US team has in international play is their size and strength up and down the roster. Bogut set out early in this game to play like he had just watched Ben Affleck's Batman promising Superman that there will be blood. He equalised the playing field, removing the threat of the 7 footers by creating foul trouble for DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. If I have one criticism, it's that Bogut may struggle to replicate a performance that good in the knockout stages of this tournament when we'll need it most.
It took Carmelo Anthony taking over and playing iso ball to score 31 points, with 9/15 from 3 point range to win this game. Just to be clear, the record for individuals points scored in a Team USA game is 37... by Melo. The Olympics has become something of a sanctuary for Melo where, freed from the terribleness of the Knicks roster/coaching/organisation (hey Phil Jackson, did you know Melo can shoot the 3? Might want to look into that), he blossoms into playing at the level he's always been capable of being. He became the all-time leading scorer for the US tonight. No one is invigorated more than Anthony out there, and they needed his veteran leadership and steadying hand out there tonight. I'm not sure yet if the fact I'm typing that sentence helps bolster the case for this team being the worst that the US has put out since 2004.
How much of a scare was this for the US? They sent the microphone away from their huddle up 6 with 0:23 seconds left. Coach K was ultra petulant. You better believe Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau is watching the game tape right now for the second time tonight. They has to rely on Melo's 1 on 1 game and making some tough low percentage shots to get out of there with the win. No one is going to be happy with the way they played tonight. Pray for Serbia, who will have to face the US next. The defence should be turned all the way up to 11.
Australian teams of the past have never been afraid to go toe to toe with anyone, but they were clearly within the archetypical 'minnow battler' category. The difference in Rio is that this is a team led by players who have battled with the very same opponents before on the biggest stage in basketball... and won. The last three NBA Championship teams have featured four Boomers currently in this squad. Delly went up against Kyrie every practice for three years; in the words of former teammate Tristian Thompson "they used to fuck each other up." You can argue about where they ranked in importance to their team, but they played their role and they know what it takes to win at the highest level. They know great teams lose games. And in tournament play, one loss is all you need. This team was never afraid. Now they're not outsiders either. A slip in the quarter or semi-finals would be devastating now looking at the quality of the rest of the competition, but the Boomers have shown they belong right at the top of the list of real international challengers to the tyranny of the US. Anything less than a medal now would feel like a huge waste of the opportunity. And everyone who loves great basketball should be rooting for a rematch of these teams in the finals.
Wade is a writer from Perth who got up extra early this morning. Follow him on Twitter.