It was very much what you expect and what you get from the first game of an international series.
The intensity was high, the physicality was high and, with both teams still getting back into the offensive groove after some time off, it meant Game 1 was at times a grind.
But that didn’t stop the John West NBL All-Australian Team from producing some moments of magic along their journey to a hard-fought 64-52 victory, which they’ll be looking to build upon in Sunday’s Game 2 in Hengyang.
Most impressive was their 20-6 outburst in six minutes early in the fourth term to blow a tight contest into a runaway win.
If their third quarter was a display of how not to play against China’s Brian Goorjian-inspired physical pressure, the Aussies’ final quarter produced the manual on how to expose it.
Their first possession after three-quarter-time featured a ball reversal, a slick backcut from Adam Gibson and kick-out to Brad Newley for a trifecta.
Then David Barlow, Daniel Kickert and Cam Gliddon checked into the game and the team really clicked into gear.
A Barlow post assist from some nice inside-outside action found Daniel Kickert for a wide-open bomb, Chris Goulding then produced a perfectly-timed backdoor cut off an opportunistic Kickert back-pick and fed Barlow for another deep dagger.
The carnage wasn’t over, Kickert then timing his cut to the basket to perfection and being rewarded by Gibson’s deft feed for an unlikely but emphatic dunk.
When Goulding and Barlow manufactured a clever two-man game off the low post it left the veteran small forward wide open outside and Barlow did the rest, giving the NBL stars a double-figure lead that would never be challenged.
It was a brilliant response from some of the veterans of this NBL All-Australian Team, who coach Andrej Lemanis turned to in a moment of need.
Having outscored China 30-18 in 16 minutes bridging the first, second and third terms, the Aussies looked in control during the third period, but they fell into the trap of one-on-one play against China’s pressure.
That’s when Lemanis sent his veterans onto the floor, with Kickert, Barlow, Andersen, Wagstaff, Gliddon and Goulding steadying the ship behind Gibson’s lead.
“He knows the system really well and gives that understanding and organisation and that little bit of defensive toughness,” Lemanis said of his Brisbane Bullets’ point guard.
Another, unassuming key piece was Barlow, who spread the floor, made great decisions and then repeatedly slid into gaps at the defensive end to keep the screws on China.
“Just his versatility defensively to switch positions both on offence and defence, and providing some perimeter scoring along with just his calmness and veteran savvy,” Lemanis said.
While the offence was smooth when it clicked, perhaps the biggest thing the Aussies will be looking to repeat in Game 2 will be their proactive defence.
Though the record books will show the NBLers produced a defensive shutdown, early on it looked like anything but.
China whipped up 20 points at 60 per cent from the field in the opening term, as the exciting young guard-big combination of Zhao Rui and Wang Zhelin ran amok.
At 194cm, Zhao’s ability to hit from outside, pull-up, get to the rim, create for others and quarterback China’s transition game was proving a tough match-up.
Even more so was the 214cm Wang, who finished with 17 points on the back of post moves, o-boards, strong drives and the ability to catch-and-finish on the move in the open floor.
With coach Lemanis deploying small line-ups featuring Kickert and Alex Loughton at centre, and Jesse Wagstaff and Barlow at power forward, the Aussies were seriously outsized.
But eventually the mobility of the Australian line-ups began to take their toll as the under-pressure Chinese guards struggled to find Wang in scoring positions.
Lemanis’ men were constantly coming at the ball to apply pressure, then sliding as a unit to recover before their opponents could find any interior holes.
Wagging the defensive tail
Wagstaff was the catalyst, his ability to help, recover and fight off bigger opponents allowed his teammates to play with genuine aggression and throw their hosts completely out of offensive rhythm.
“Jesse’s disruptive defence is something that at times can be handy for us, his ability to get up the floor and create some pressure,” Lemanis said.
Quite remarkably, the NBL stars held Team China to 22 points in the final 25 minutes, and 12 in the last 15 minutes of the contest. After shooting 60 per cent in the opening stanza, China’s final statline was a lowly 37 per cent.
Is there room for improvement on that defensive display? Probably the statistic that stands out is China’s 2-of-22 long-range display.
While much of that can go down to the strong contesting of Aussie hands on many of those shots, this Chinese line-up went 9-of-19 against Korea in their previous appearance together in the World Cup qualifiers.
While shooting star Ding Yanyuhang isn’t in this squad, there is still plenty of perimeter punch, led by Sun Minghui and Fang Shuo, so the visitors will need to be en pointe in their ability to help inside without giving up open shots around the arc.
Another key is on the boards, where the outsized Aussies battled manfully on Friday to lose the count 31-27, but a slight slip in that area could see them locked into the half-court.
“The Chinese are always pretty big right through, certainly size has something to do with it but also just willingness and application is the key to get that done,” Lemanis said.
That’s what Kickert, Wagstaff, Barlow, Andersen and Loughton provided in Game 1, with support from perimeter folks like Newley.
If they can rebound and get into offence early, the All-Australian team has shown their patience, ball movement and off-ball action are very tough for China to contain.
With perimeter bombers like Kickert, Andersen, Wagstaff, Loughton and Barlow in the frontcourt, and Newley, Gliddon, Goulding and Cadee all effective with penetration at times in Game 1, there is real potential to rack up plenty more than 64 points when the series resumes on Sunday.
NBL All-Australian Team v China
Game 2 – Sunday 10 June in Hengyang
Game 3 – Tuesday 12 June in Beijing
*All games are live on Fox Sports
The Australian squad for the tour is:
Angus Brandt – Perth Wildcats
Cam Gliddon – Brisbane Bullets
Adam Gibson – Brisbane Bullets
Chris Goulding – Melbourne United
Craig Moller – Melbourne United
Jason Cadee – Brisbane Bullets
David Andersen – Illawarra Hawks
Brad Newley – Sydney Kings
David Barlow – Melbourne United
Jesse Wagstaff – Perth Wildcats
Alex Loughton – Cairns Taipans
Daniel Kickert – Sydney Kings