Losing to Brazil in the way that they did was frustrating but understandable for the Tall Blacks, that Brazilian side is extremely good and extremely good sides punish small lapses in execution or focus. If they go on to lose to Greece in their third game then we can’t hardly complain either - that’s the thing about being an underdog on these global occasions: we’re not expected to win these games. But the one against Montenegro was their chance. This was the one they could really target. Lose this and the other two wouldn’t even matter, a win and they’d keep alive any legit hopes of advancing beyond the first group stage.
And you know what? They were bloody marvellous. Right from the start the Tall Blacks established how they wanted to play the game, getting out quick in transition and running those big Montenegro fellas in circles. They rebounded superbly as a team considering the size difference (both upwards and outwards) between… well, between Bojan Dubljevic, Nikola Vucevic, and everybody else on the court (those two had 21 of Montenegro’s 38 total rebounds while the Tall Blacks, who also had 38 rebounds, had six different players with at least three and nobody with more than seven). And most crucially of all they shot the ball with some raucous sizzle.
The only drama in those early minutes were the fouls. You can always trust the Tall Blacks to muscle up defensively and against those bigger bodies that’s a risk you have to take. But the refs aren’t always forgiving and several players tallied up multiple fouls in the first quarter with Montenegro in the bonus before you even knew it. However Corey Webster wasted no time in picking up where he left off in the first half against Brazil as he went splash from the high diving board, hitting all three triples he attempted in the opening frame as well as dishing out a pair of assists and grabbing a steal. Chuck in that Rob Loe was draining them too… always a good barometer… and the Tall Blacks were looking slick.
But those fouls did keep it ticking along for Montenegro and they showed they know how to manufacture a few shots of their own in the process. Having been restricted to a pitiful 16 points in the first half against Greece, Montenegro matched that mark not even five minutes into this contest. Some nice stuff from Shea Ili, Isaac Fotu, and Tai Webster late in the quarter meant the TBs were up by five at the buzzer but the question was how sustainable was this? How sustainable was the pace, how sustainable was the shooting, how sustainable was Montenegro’s subpar level?
Well, that’s where some quality defence comes into the picture. After Montenegro came back to tie it at 36-36, the Tall Blacks worked a few turnovers and immediately went on a 7-0 run themselves to re-establish that lead. It was a tough matchup and turnovers were a clear issue for the Tall Blacks themselves… but a 53-44 lead at HT shows that a lot more was working than wasn’t. Shooting 63% from triple range (compared to 29% for MNE) wasn’t gonna last and neither was Nikola Vucevic being held to 4pts/3reb after the first two quarters. But their general intensity was reaping rewards and an unexpected one of those was the Montenegro coach Zvezdan Mitrovic getting bumped on out of there by the refs after copping two technical fouls. Automatic ejection, amigo. Shout out to the fella for crossing himself up though. Have to admire the spiritual hustle even in the midst of competitive sport. Your soul ain’t gonna heal itself, aye?
The thing is, the Tall Blacks had been in a great position at the half against Brazil too but the last six minutes of the third quarter were a disaster and you can probably guess what started to happen late in the third quarter here too. An 11-point lead with a bit under six minutes left began to slip away and Nikola Vucevic was a big part of that, getting the ol’ and-ones and popping them from outside too. Look, this was always going to happen. There aren’t any teams in this group, Tall Blacks included, who won’t get on a hot streak at least a couple times in any game regardless of opposition and the difference between the teams who’ll go far in China and those who won’t is that the good teams can ride those periods out and minimise the damage. The Tall Blacks failed to do that against Brazil. Against Montenegro they still got outscored 16-6 over the last 5:59 of the quarter but they clung onto a one-point lead at the end of that, a major psychological boost considering the events of two nights previous.
Then the fourth quarter was triumph. They’d held off the Montenegro charge but still needed a response if they were going to win this thing and keep their tournament chances alive. That response came pretty much immediately and it came in the form of Corey Webster. He wanted the ball in his hands and he wanted to shoot it. He took the game by the scruff of the neck and bossed that sucker on the way to 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists in a fantastic performance. From trailing 67-66 a minute into the final frame to leading by double digits within five minutes. Once they got the lead back it was never again within a single possession. Jeez, this was solid. A wonderful team performance and exactly what the Tall Blacks have been building towards for the last month and beyond.
Along with the ferocious quality of Corey Webster’s performance, stringing together a full four quarters of excellent basketball, Isaac Fotu was reaching for the top shelf himself with 20 points on 7/10 FG with 7 rebounds. Tai Webster still can’t shoot a triple to save himself and he missed all five here but still got to 11 points with 4 rebs and 5 ast. There were some open looks in there too so there’s an immediate area where the TBs can step it up against Greece, similar goes for Tom Abercrombie who has shot 2/8 and 1/5 from the field in these two games. Also Finn Delany has (a little surprisingly) been a non-factor, with 0/4 combined from the field in 20-odd total minutes this World Cup. 10 points and 6 assists from Shea Ili and 10 points and 4 rebounds from Rob Loe goes good too.
A bit interesting that some of the minutes were switched up drastically in the rotation between these two games… Ethan Rusbatch went from 17:01 mins vs Brazil down to 5:45 vs Montenegro, Delany went from 15:17 down to 6:14 while Jordan Ngatai went from 53 seconds up to 12:30 and Tohi Smith-Milner from 8:16 up to 15:19… the bigger Montenegro fellas demanding more from TSM as an option and the lad sure delivered, NZ outscoring MNE by 6 points while he was on the court (Ngatai’s mins were more directly because of foul trouble for others, to be fair). Not as impressive as the +18 that Rob Loe threw down but you can’t ask much more from a guy whose place in this squad wasn’t ever especially secure than to be a positive influence with the minutes he gets. He’s knocked down a triple in both games too, how about it? Smith-Milner with the raaaange.
Vucevic ended up with 15 points and 9 rebounds. Nikola Ivanovic was really good also with 18 points and 7 assists… but he shot just 2/10 from deep. As a unit Montenegro could only muster 10/38 from beyond the perimeter while Corey Webster, the magician, made 6/8 all by his lonesome. In fact the Tall Blacks shot 44% there and that skips up to 55% if you take out the five triples that Tai Webster missed. Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on Corey Webster in that regard but hey as long as he’s making them then no dramas. He’s 11/20 for the tournament and through two games there’s not a bugger who has made more. Bojan Dubljevic and Petar Popovic each added 13 points as well.
Something else funky happened last night too… Brazil beat Greece in the other game in the group. It was a wild old finish as Greece milked a trio of free throws to win it at the very death but Bruno Caboclo tipped the third one off the rim and Brazil held on to win by a single point in a game where they’d once trailed by double digits. It’s not a result that massively matters to the Tall Blacks in terms of making anything easier for them… but perhaps it shows that the daunting task of Greece with the NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo might not be as far ahead of the rest of the pack as was suggested. Brazil after all have a deeper squad and it was that deep squad that made the difference in the second half against New Zealand. That depth of roster is what’ll define the teams that go deep in this thing.
So far Giannis has done this…
16 MIN | 10 PTS (4/7 2PT, 0/2 3PT) | 8 REB | 1 AST | 2 STL | 3 PF
29 MIN | 13 PTS (3/6 2PT, 0/1 3PT) | 4 REB | 1 AST | 3 STL | 5 PF
Which is absolutely nothing special… hence with their tournament on the line you can probably expect him to go next level against New Zealand. But, like, if we get beaten by the best of Giannis then okay. You can deal with that. But just make sure he needs to be at his best for that to happen. Basically the winner of that game (midnight on Thurs/Fri NZT) advances to the next round along with Brazil. Thanks to this lovely win over Montenegro the Tall Blacks still have everything to play for.
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