What is it about Australians of late and the NBA Finals?
For years, Australian basketballers were only really extras on the sport’s biggest stage.
Luc Longley remains the headline act following his storied role as the starting centre on three straight championships with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls between 1996 and 1998.
Andrew Gaze, Shane Heal, Chris Anstey, David Andersen and Nathan Jawai are among those that had brief, largely peripheral appearances in the NBA over the two decades since.
It is unquestionably an admirable achievement just to reach that level, particularly for a country where basketball trails well behind cricket and the football codes for overall popularity.
But they were unable to make a discernible impact among the freak athletes that populate the NBA.
That has all changed, however, in two short, spectacular years.
Firstly, Patty Mills played a key role in San Antonio’s triumph over LeBron James’ Miami Heat in last year’s Finals, knocking down five three-pointers in the series-clinching fifth game.
Fellow Aussie Aron Baynes was also part of that Spurs squad, playing important back-up minutes as they joined Longley and Gaze as Australian NBA Champions.
(Gaze is highly self-deprecating about his championship, however, considering he was left off the Spurs’ playoff roster. He qualified for his silverware after averaging 3.1 minutes in 19 regular season games.)
This year, Aussie big man Andrew Bogut’s Golden State Warriors are taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top prize.
The Cavs are led by James, who returned to his hometown club from Miami ahead of this season, while they also possess a feisty Australian point guard named Matthew Dellavedova.
Most people reading this column wouldn’t have known Dellavedova’s name just a few days ago, but the sporting world is now abuzz following ‘Delly’s’ recent heroics.
He was already a cult hero in Cleveland, battling his way onto the Cavs’ roster having been overlooked by all 30 teams in the 2013 NBA Draft. But now sporting fans across the globe have his oft-mispronounced surname on their collective lips.
Having kept the clamps defensively on reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry in game two of the Finals, icing the game with two late free-throws, Dellavedova raise his input further in game three.
Pouring in a playoff career-high 20 points, ‘Delly’ added five boards and four assists, but this was about more than numbers.
The 24-year-old made some crucial late plays, launching himself after loose balls and hitting some key shots in Cleveland’s 96-91 win that now has them two wins from a first title in franchise history.
This column was originally going to focus on Bogut, the No.1 pick from the 2005 draft who is trying to add to his own legacy with a first title. But fellow Victorian Dellavedova has bumped and elbowed his way into prominence and demanded star billing.
Twitter has awoken to his gritty style. A sign of anyone’s standing these days can often be measured by the appearance of a parody account on the social network.
Following his influential role in game two, an account called @DellyFact appeared. The first tweet then caused a stir – “(Michael) Jordan scored 32,292 career points,” it read. “He had 0 against Delly.”
Jordan, of course, retired years before Dellavedova came into the league, but the tweet grabbed attention and at the time of writing had resulted in over 5,500 retweets.
As is often commonplace in great sporting stories, Dellavedova’s rise so easily may never have happened if not for some intervention from the basketball gods.
A serious knee injury to Cleveland’s All Star point guard Kyrie Irving in the opening game of the series opened the door for Delly to move into the starting line-up.
Trailing 1-0 in the series, most observers felt Irving’s loss was the final dagger in Cleveland’s title bid. Instead, the unheralded Aussie has been integral in consecutive Cavalier victories.
Adding to the Dellavedova appeal in working-class Cleveland, he has an ungainly, far-from-textbook style.
His jumpshot makes him look like one of the dancing zombies in Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ music video.
Throw in a rugged, rapidly-expanding beard that covers a cheeky, toothy grin and it’s not hard to see why he is such a fan favourite.
“Delly is the most Cleveland-like Australian I’ve ever met in my life, and if you’re from Cleveland, you know just what I’m talking about,” Cavs coach David Blatt said after game three.
“The guys love Delly because he plays with all his heart. He cares first about the team and only about the team. Whether he’s playing nine minutes or 40 minutes, he’s going to give you everything he has.
“What’s not to love about the guy?”
So how is Bogut faring in his first trip to the NBA’s ‘Big Dance’? Despite his 213cm frame, and vastly superior credentials, the centre is being overshadowed in every sense by his 193cm compatriot.
Bogut has had the odd moment, averaging just under eight boards and 1.6 blocks per game. But it’s also not so much about the numbers with the Warriors’ defensive lynchpin.
Bogut’s main job is to clog up the paint, keep the Cleveland players off the boards and protect the rim. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old, he has had a couple of bad days at the office.
Cleveland big men Timofey Mosgov and Tristan Thompson have so far thoroughly outplayed Bogut and the Golden State front court.
In his 10th season, Bogut was widely praised for his efforts this year, appearing in 67 regular season games and averaging 6.3 points, 8.1 boards and 1.7 blocks per game.
It was the most games he had managed since the 2009-10 season and he responded by being named in the NBA’s All Defensive second team and finishing sixth in defensive player of the year voting.
There is still time for him to turn it around and have an impact before this year’s champion is crowned. But for now he is being outplayed by his young compatriot.
“He’s got to be made of steel or something,” James said of Dellavedova following game three.
“He’s been so important for us. He’s been huge.”