Oh yes. That is Tall Blacks basketball right there. Two more games to determine their exact finishing position and there just so happened to be a bit on the line as well with a spot in the Olympic qualifying tournaments next year to slip into the shopping cart as well if possible. Although exactly what they had to do to get there seemed to be kinda vague. People were talking like they had to beat both Japan and Turkey and win their classification group but this is what the official lines were about those qualifying tournaments:
“The tournament will be contested by the 16 best non-qualifying teams at the 2019 World Cup and an additional 2 teams from each of the four regions of Africa, Americas, Asia (and Oceania), and Europe.”
So with seven teams qualifying automatically from the World Cup as well as Japan being hosts that suggests a top 24 finish would be all we needed and even then only if we fell beneath most of the Asian teams as well. Which… we didn’t. With wins over Japan and Turkey we ended up 19th out of 32 teams in the classifications but the six Asian sides at this tournament all finished in the bottom ten. Basically all we needed to do was beat Japan in the first classifier and yeah mate we did that one with room to spare. But I could be wrong… not that it matters because we’re there either way.
That Japan game… it might as well have been an exhibition because from the second quarter onwards it was just never a contest. All the things that the Tall Blacks have been building towards exploded all over an undermotivated Japanese team. With nothing left to play for since their Olympic qualifying is assured as hosts, Japan’s star player Rui Hachimura was held out of these last two games in order to give him more time to prepare for his rookie NBA season – as well as protecting him from any injury in a meaningless game. Now, The Tall Blacks split a couple games with Japan at the start of their prep tour but that was with Hachimura looking fantastic and New Zealand has only gotten better since then, highlighted by wins over Italy and Montenegro.
So even after Japan rallied from ten points down in the first to be tied at 29-all as the opening quarter ended, the Tall Blacks just shrugged and kept on going. Five minutes later they had that double digit lead back. By half-time the lead was up to 18 points. That lead then got as high as 38 points in the fourth quarter and 38 points is way too high to be safe to drive so you know it was long since time to go to bed by then.
Turkey on the other hand were going to offer a bit more of a test. They took the USA to overtime after all – although they were also without a key player in Ersan Ilyasova who wasn’t really bothered about classifications… plus Enes Kanter obviously isn’t allowed to play for Turkey or else they’d blacklist the whole team and refuse to broadcast it since he’s considered a political insurgent or something equally drastic in his home nation. People honest to god do not talk enough about how absolutely insane that whole situation is and what danger Old Mate Enes lives his life in and how courageous he is for his stance against oppression. Seriously.
But Turkey still have the legend that is Cedi Osman. Pronounced Jedi for a reason, you know. LeBron’s little buddy. Oh and former Cairns guard Scottie Wilbekin was playing too. But while Cedi Osman (32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists & 3 steals) was out there dominating alongside Melih Mahmutoglu (27 points, 5 assists)… the Tall Blacks who have relied on the lights-out brilliant touch that Corey Webster has found himself in this tournament produced a beautifully rounded team performance to get the W. Corey only had 12 points, a respectable night for most but his least flashy of this World Cup, yet his influence on the court was still strong and although nobody scored more than 17 points, the TBs had six scorers in double digits and another two with 9 points. And when it came down to a one on one duel at the very end for the win… Cedi Osman met his match in Isaac Fotu. The dying stages of this game:
Fotu looped in a one-handed floater for the 100-99 lead with a minute left (after a brave long and early feed from Corey Webster – TBs staying true to their style ‘til the end)
Osman, prominently guarded by Fotu, connects on a deep two from the left side to put Turkey back on top with 34 seconds remaining
Fotu brings out the glorious skyhook early in the shot clock to make it 102-101 with 30 seconds left
Osman misses on the pull up for the probably win and Tai Webster gets the rebound with seven seconds left and winds down the clock… not really sure why Turkey didn’t foul but okay (they still had a few to give so I guess they figured there was no point)
So to recap then, here are the top scorers for New Zealand in that Turkey game: Fotu (17), Loe (17), Webster x2 (12), Delany (12), Abercrombie (11), Ili (9), Smith-Milner (9). That’s incredible and it showed that in the final game in a tough but winnable contest against a strong European team that they’d never beaten before there was a little bit of everything on the table. All the lads who got the opportunity stepped up.
Interestingly only Rob Loe hit at better than 50% from three as well with NZ as a team going 9/27 but without that weapon which has been so crucial in their wins this World Cup they found other ways to score. This Tall Blacks team under Paul Henare had a specific way of how they wanted to play, with quick transitions and shooting on the wings and with a couple of those big fellas. They moved the ball with selfless determination and while that cost them a few too many turnovers in big games it was also why they were able to keep manufacturing good looks especially in these last few games. They’re far from a one-trick team. We saw that very clearly against Turkey.
Corey Webster’s 2019 World Cup:
BRA: 32 MIN | 19 PTS (7/19 FG, 5/12 3PT, 0/0 FT) | 6 REB | 6 AST
MNE: 27 MIN | 25 PTS (7/12 FG, 6/8 3PT, 5/6 FT) | 6 REB | 7 AST
GRE: 31 MIN | 31 PTS (11/18 FG, 7/12 3PT, 2/2 FT) | 3 REB | 4 AST
JAP: 30 MIN | 27 PTS (9/11 FG, 4/6 3PT, 5/5 FT) | 5 REB | 6 AST
TUR: 29 MIN | 12 PTS (5/12 FG, 2/6 3PT, 0/0 FT) | 3 REB | 5 AST
And that’s with tournament shooting splits of: 54.2% FG | 54.5% 3PT | 92.3% FT
He averaged 22.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game at China 2019. Like, there’s just nothing more you can say, the dude was incredible. Guna Ra from South Korea has slightly edged him in total points with 115 compared to 114 but that was with close to four extra shot attempts per game. Of players who have attempted at least 20 threes here in China only Bogdan Bogdanovic is on par with Corey Webster’s percentage. And Corey’s top ten in total assists as well. There are no words.
By the way Corey Webster’s game against Japan was just on a whole other level, he had a +39 while on the court and scored 27 points off just 11 field goal attempts.
Tell you what else, Finn Delany picked a nice time to step up. With 12 points on a perfect 6/6 shooting night against Turkey he finally brought the spark plug energy in the paint that we were hoping for this tournament. 4 total points in the first four game, 12 in the fifth game… and he hauled in some big boards in that one too. Tough World Cup for him after such a soaring last 12-18 months but at least he doesn’t leave without showing the world what he’s capable of.
World rankings are pretty dumb at the best of times but it’s still worth pointing out that the Tall Blacks finished 19th at this tournament despite being ranked 38 by FIBA. The fifth lowest ranked team to qualify. And it was only points differential that had us behind Nigeria and Germany in the final standings as well. They leave China with a winning record and they did it by trusting in their own abilities, playing to their strengths, and believing that they could compete with anybody. Perhaps not the dream scenario it could have been if that third quarter against Brazil hadn’t happened but there’s an immense amount of pride emerging from that campaign.
Two more other things I wanna throw out there, the first is that Rob Loe’s status as a barometer player lives on undefeated. When he made two or more triples in a game this tournament (which happened four times out of five) he had a positive +/- and scored in the double digits each time. The one game, against Greece, where he didn’t deliver on that he fouled out late with a -5 and the Tall Blacks lost. Loe’s fouls were always in the back of the mind as he gave up 20 of them in five games but shout out to his underrated ability as a passer (and more crucially his willingness to keep the ball moving, which a lot of big fellas don’t have) because he had 10 combined assists in 34 minutes in the two classifiers.
And the other thing is a tad more precise: I told you Isaac Fotu’s hook shot was pure gold.
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