For more than a decade, the blueprint for beating USA Basketball was to pray for divine intervention. How else to handle the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant?
Australia checked all those boxes and more on Saturday, defeating Team USA 98-94 in an exhibition game in front of more than 52,000 fans at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne.
The stunning, historic loss marked Team USA’s first with NBA players in nearly 13 years, as it last fell to Greece 101-95 in the FIBA World Championship semifinals on Sept. 1, 2006. Team USA swept through the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics, as well as the 2010 and 2014 FIBA tournaments, without a single defeat under Popovich’s predecessor, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
There was nothing fluky about Australia’s performance, which snapped a 78-game American winning streak and came in a tune-up contest before the start of the FIBA World Cup in China. After the Boomers seized control by rallying from a double-digit deficit in the third quarter, Team USA’s execution waned on both ends during a nightmarish late-game showing.
With their attack struggling to generate easy looks against a committed defeat, Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell repeatedly settled for contested jumpers in the game’s closing minutes. On the night, Team USA registered just 11 assists and hit only 10 of its 30 three-pointers, red flags given Popovich’s desire to play an unselfish drive-and-kick style that is heavy on ball movement.
Defensively, the Americans had no answers for San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills, who scored 13 of his game-high 30 points in a dazzling closing flourish. When the undersized Mills banked in a three-pointer with less than three minutes to play, the Americans’ fate was all but sealed.
“You have to give [the Australians] great credit," Popovich said during his postgame news conference. “As I told you all after last game, Patty Mills is a pain in the a--.”
Mills, who has spent the past eight seasons playing for Popovich in San Antonio, was one of many Australian NBA talents to impact the win, which was the country’s first in 67 international contests against Team USA.
“The [fan] support has been amazing,” Mills said in a televised postgame interview, as his teammates enjoyed a standing ovation and celebrated with their children on the court. “We’re very proud to represent these colors the right way. We’re doing it as a group, as a team, as best mates.”
Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles hit a go-ahead three-pointer with less than four minutes remaining, and finished with 15 points and seven assists. Former Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut chipped in 16 points and nine rebounds off the bench.
The Americans, led by only two 2019 all-stars after a series of high-profile withdrawals, have chafed at doubters in recent weeks. They played well in exhibition wins over Spain in Los Angeles and Australia on Thursday, but both hard-fought games revealed potential weaknesses that Australia was able to exploit in the rematch.
“It’s not really about [Team USA],” Ingles said, pointing to Australia’s goal of claiming a FIBA medal. “We’re glad they came out here and enjoyed the challenge. For us, it’s about building to get better and better until the World Cup. It’s a great step for us. We showed how we can play.”
Team USA will play one final exhibition contest, against Canada on Wednesday in Sydney, before departing for China. There, World Cup group play will commence against the Czech Republic on Sept. 1.
With the tournament fast approaching, Walker made no excuses for the unexpected wake-up call.
“[The Australians] played well,” Walker said after scoring a team-high 22 points. “They wanted it more than us tonight. Lesson learned for us. ... This is a team that’s just coming together. We’re going to keep working and watch some film.”