By Paulo Kennedy - Guest Writer during the 2014 FIBA World Championship for Women.
What’s the book on trying to beat the powerful USA? Slow the game down, make it a grind and hope they miss shots?
I think it’s time for the Jayco Opals to throw that book away.
The Aussies have set the tournament alight playing fast, aggressive and largely conscience-free basketball, with Erin Phillips, Penny Taylor, Rachel Jarry, Marianna Tolo and Nat Burton in particular sparking their high-speed style.
Recent history – Serbia’s performance in the second game of this tournament – says that could be the recipe for success in Sunday morning’s semi-final clash with the defending champs.
Over the first three quarters they forced the USA into 19 turnovers and trailed by just seven points with under seven minutes left in the game.
The Serbs didn’t achieve that by going into their shells, they played aggressive, unpredictable and confident basketball that put the Americans on the back foot.
The European fourth-place getters did a good job of making the USA play junk ball, a style they were surprisingly not at home in.
While the potential is there for the athletic and skillful Americans to turn open play into quick points, Serbia consistently made their opponents move into secondary transition, and then junked up their defence enough to regularly prevent them from getting into offensive sets.
Making the Americans try to score from areas they weren’t accustomed to resulted in open-floor opportunities in the other direction on a number of occasions.
Of course, eventually the Serbs ran out of legs, and while Australia’s greater depth will give them great confidence, coach Brendan Joyce will have some subtle strategies to slow the USA down, possibly including the use of strategic fouls.
It’s important the Aussie don’t slow the game down too much though, with transition where they have been most effective in generating points.
The early post feed has been the Jayco Opals’ trademark, not only to get quick scores, but to get inside-out play that causes the defence to sag and opens the game up for slick ball movement and open shots.
While it will be much tougher for Aussie bigs to finish inside this game, it is crucial they run the floor, receive the ball and then get it moving to keep the American help defence on the hop.
The slower the ball moves, the more the US defenders get into the passing lanes and help spots ready to pounce for steals and block shots.
If the US are allowed to rest on defence and then burst out on the break it will be a long night for the Aussies.
Crucial will be the effort and execution in defensive transition the Opals showed against Belarus.
Gun American guards Sue Bird, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and swingman Diana Taurasi will push the ball at every opportunity.
The Aussie can’t allow quick break-outs or kick-ahead passes or else the towering Brittney Griner will get early post-feeds under the hoop, and that’s an automatic two points.
In the halfcourt the pick-and-roll defence is vitally important.
Any time the Serbians switched the ball-screen or hedged too hard they seemed to be punished with post mismatches or offensive rebounds, and while the American guards can shoot, a contested jumper is better than a lay-up.
Expect the Aussies to dare the Whalen and Bird to shoot from range – having taken just five three-pointers between them and connected on one – rather than allow them to creatively go to work in the lane.
Augustus, Moore and Taurasi are a different story, shooting 67, 47 and 57 per cent respectively, and they can’t be allowed to come off screens and shoot with impunity.
Serbia had good success whenever they kept the US offence to the baseline, with their rotations able to cover most subsequent ball movement.
Don’t be surprised if the Aussies try to force the American wings to the baseline and away from the ball-screen, daring the US bigs to become ‘poppers’ and consistently hit from mid-range.
Where that can break down is if those frontcourt players attack the rim rather than settling, with Tina Charles particularly adept in that situation.
But Australia’s rotations have been first class all tournament, and they must continue to do so aggressively and back their teammates to come to the party.
The key after that will be rebounding. With all the Americans capable of hauling in o-boards – Moore averages 2.2 from the backcourt – it will take a five-player effort every time down the floor to keep the Jayco Opals level on the o-boards.
The reality is, however, the USA lead the tournament by a margin in scoring, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and assists, so the Australians must score to win.
They have been irrepressible moving the ball and shooting with confidence, and that needs to continue even if the Americans get off to a fast start.
The US guards like to go under the ball screen so their Aussie counterparts must be ready to use their pull-ups.
They can’t settle for the jumper too often though, as the Jayco Opals’ 28 free-throw attempts per game and 86 per cent conversion are tournament best, and a crucial part of the offence.
It comes back to the same formula coach Joyce has instilled in his players so well – push the ball, get it inside, if nothing’s on move it and create driving lanes, when the defence sags nail open jumpers.
The task at hand is difficult, but the Americans have not looked invincible this year, and against Serbia they look downright susceptible to pressure.
If the Jayco Opals keep playing with their intelligent aggression who knows what might happen?
Jayco Australian Opals v Team USA
Sunday 5 October @ Fenerbache Arena, Istanbul 5:15am AEDT
TV: ABC TV Nationally (check your local guides for broadcast times)