Australia came into its Olympic men’s basketball semifinal with Serbia as clear a favorite, having lost only to the United States in the tournament and coming off a dominant victory over Lithuania in Wednesday’s quarterfinal. With notable NBA players like Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills playing very well and the team looking like a cohesive unit, the Boomers seemed in excellent position to play for gold against the United States on Sunday and clinch their first-ever Olympic men’s basketball medal.
As in the women’s basketball quarterfinal matchup between these two nations, the final result was way off expectations. Building off a narrow win over Croatia on Wednesday, Serbia held Australia to single digits in each of the first two quarters to build a 21-point halftime advantage. The Australian offense improved noticeably in the second half, but not nearly enough to make it anything approaching a competitive game. Serbia cruised to an 87-61 victory and will now have a chance to avenge its narrow three-point loss to the United States in the preliminary round. If it pulls off a second-straight upset, Serbia will finish with the first basketball gold medal since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. If that does not come to pass, it will still win its first basketball medal since becoming an independent nation in 2006.
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Serbia’s win represents arguably the biggest achievement in the country’s basketball history, but Australia’s offensive struggles were the clear story of the game. The first-quarter stats were staggering – the Boomers scored five points on 2-of-15 shooting from the field plus five turnovers and just one offensive rebound to create second chances. There were no positives – they created bad shots, missed open ones, missed easy passes and generally looked unprepared to play. It was a far cry from the excellent execution and clutch shotmaking that had typified their Olympics up until this point.
The lone saving grace was that Serbia played well below its own offensive capabilities. Star point guard Milos Teodosic looked to shoot early and often and led all scorers with 12 points at the half, but he needed 10 shot attempts to get there and received relatively little help from what had been a balanced attack in recent games. Serbia shot 14-of-35 from the field in the first half, including 1-of-8 from deep, and committed eight turnovers. Its 35 points were not especially impressive, and head coach Aleksandar Dordevic had plenty to complain about at the halftime break.
Australia’s Andrej Lemanis just had a lot more to discuss. The second quarter was an improvement for the stumbling offense, but only in the same way that losing a finger is better than losing an entire arm. Australia shot a whopping 4-of-14 from the field in the period and still managed no free-throw attempts, leading to a nine-point quarter to bring its total to 14. The teamwide struggles continued in nearly every facet, and the pressure only seemed greater as the woes went deeper into the contest. A 21-point deficit might have appeared manageable under other circumstances, but Australia was so bad in the first half that the margin looked insurmountable.
It proved to be after just a few minutes of the third quarter. Australia executed far better and managed to get to the free throw line for easy points, but the defense dropped off to allow Serbia to trade baskets. The lead got up to 28 points by the end of the period, and the gold-medal matchup was set.
It’s hard to say why the Australians came out so flat. Perhaps a newfound status as favorites got to them, or maybe the pressure of clinching the first major-tournament medal in history was too much. Whatever the case, the players who had carried them through the first six games did not perform to expectations. Bogut had been arguably the MVP of the tournament but managed just four points and one rebound, while Mills shot 1-of-9 from long range while looking uncomfortable throughout. Nothing went right, and the team often seemed baffled at the lack of answers.
Nevertheless, Serbia deserves lots of credit for coming out with superior energy and putting the game away in the second half when Australia’s offense returned to normalcy. Teodosic (22 points and five assists) and fellow starting guard Stefan Markovic (14 points on 5-of-5 FG and five assists) were the best players on the floor, and frontcourt players Miroslav Raduljica and Nikola Jokic contributed in multiple facets to neutralize big men Bogut, Aron Baynes and David Andersen.
Serbia will attempt to work through that same formula on Sunday. It worked quite well last Friday, when Bojan Bogdanovic, Serbia’s best outside shooter, missed an open 3 in the final seconds that would have sent the Group A game into overtime. Team USA will certainly be prepared for its less heralded opponents, but it’ll also be facing a team with plenty of talent and lots of confidence.
Whatever happens, Serbia is already the biggest success story of the tournament. After winning silver at the FIBA World Cup in 2014, this team knew it would have the opportunity to compete for a medal in Rio. But claiming at least a silver medal – especially after three losses in Group A – is especially impressive.
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