Melbourne, Australia • Team USA saw how it wanted to play on Thursday night. It’s just that, for one half, the Americans saw it from the other team.
After two quarters in which Australia hung tough with the No. 1 overall basketball team in the world, trailing by just a margin of 44-43 at the half, Gregg Popovich’s American backcourt came out of halftime copying the Boomers’ defensive urgency and an offensive spark to end up running away with Thursday’s FIBA World Cup warmup contest, 102-86.
But it wasn’t always easy. The first half was a display of the full force of Australia’s national basketball experience; the core of which has played together for nearly a decade. Point guard Patty Mills would set up Jazzman Joe Ingles, who could find a rolling Aron Baynes or former Ute center Andrew Bogut. Perhaps fueled by a crowd of 51,218 that attended the game in Melbourne, the Australian offense whirred early.
“You can feel the chemistry that they have with each other, moving without the ball, the back-door passes, the behind the back passes,” Donovan Mitchell explained.
There was also the defensive effort given by Australia, who forced turnovers by trapping Americans in the corners, or helping in the paint, drawing fouls. That aggressiveness was an approach point guard Kemba Walker and Mitchell copied in the second half, keying a 32-18 advantage in the third quarter that pushed the USA over the top. After Mills ran rampant early, the guards made his life tough late in the game.
“We got used to the physicality, changed up a couple of things, and we had some guys do a good job,” Popovich said.
The defense led to offense, too. Walker led Team USA with 23 points in the contest, while Mitchell finished with 13. Only big man Myles Turner scored more — 15 points — thanks to a tremendous rebounding game and FIBA’s rules which allow certain forms of offensive goaltending. Former Utah forward Kyle Kuzma finished with 12 points, all of which came from beyond the 3-point arc. Mills and non-NBAer Chris Goulding led Australia with 19 points each.
In the end, Popovich was satisfied enough with the performance that he canceled the USA’s planned practice on Friday. They’ll have the chance to show they were able to keep that growth with another chance coming up in another contest in less than than 48 hours — scheduled at 2 p.m. Saturday Melbourne time, 10 p.m. Friday Mountain time — in front of another massive Australian crowd.
After Australia briefly took the lead at 45-44 early in the second half, the Americans scored 13 unanswered points, including three straight 3-pointers by Turner, Harrison Barnes and the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, to go up 57-45.
"The way we bounced back in the second half shows the character of this team," Mitchell said. "We played in front of 55,000 people — there's going to be nerves, guys are going to be geeked up and ready to go. But once we settled down and started playing our basketball we were in good shape."
Mills and Chris Goulding scored 19 points each for Australia.
Despite the huge crowd, Australian media reported that some fans were issued refunds because they bought tickets based on promotional materials depicting Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Neither is on the team.
Australia was also without its biggest star, Ben Simmons, who has opted not to play in the World Cup. Still, the Boomers starting lineup included four NBA players: Mills, Aron Baynes, Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova.
The crowd produced only a smattering of applause for American baskets. However, cheers erupted when the Boomers cut down the U.S. lead before halftime on back-to-back 3-pointers by Goulding and six straight points by Mills.
The win was the 78th in a row in major international exhibitions and competition for the U.S. national team, a streak that started with the bronze medal game of the 2006 world championships. It encompasses gold-medal runs at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and the FIBA Americas tournament in 2007.
It also made the U.S. 2-0 under coach Popovich, after last weekend’s exhibition win in California over Spain.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.