When coach Steve Kerr came to practice Sunday and saw some of his Team USA players were a little frustrated after a 27-point victory, he smiled. The first FIBA World Cup lesson had landed.
That mood carried into Monday night, when the U.S. played a more focused, cleaner and overall better match in beating Greece 109-81 to move to 2-0 in the event. The win assures the U.S. will move on to the second round after its last pool play game Wednesday versus Jordan.
“Really good effort from our guys,” Kerr said. “Our thought process every game is to wear the opponent down. We’re just trying to stay solid on every possession and really put pressure on the opponent.”
That didn’t always happen in the opener versus New Zealand. The Americans won easily but were the less physical and less prepared team for a good chunk of the game. That is the sort of bad habit that portended trouble for the national team in the past. Those worries were pushed off against the Greeks, who are empirically the toughest opponent the U.S. will face in pool play, even if they’re not as potent without the injured Giannis Antetokounmpo.
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Jalen Brunson, who had been just so-so over the past few games, emerged seeking to set a tone as his captain status demands.
He was looking for his shot, barking at the referees and generally showing fire that he hoped would be contagious. Brunson made all five of his shots and finished with 13 points in a bounce-back effort for the Team USA starters who had been outplayed over the previous two games.
“For us it’s all about feel and how we just need to attack the game as soon as we step on that court,” Brunson said. “We’re still growing, we’re still learning and we still have a lot of time to get better.”
After great performances in the warmup games, U.S. scoring ace Anthony Edwards shot 1-of-6 to start Monday’s contest but shook it off and found his stride as the night wore on, finishing with 13 points.
Overall, the starters were better than they were in the past few outings but still the lesser unit. Kerr often groups his substitutes, and the difference in effectiveness between the first and second teams remains obvious.
In the first half, the U.S. starters outscored Greece by two points. The second unit, led again by the inspired play of Austin Reaves, was plus-11. That cushion made the second half comfortable, and the starters got some momentum by extending the lead in the third quarter.
Reaves was drawing fouls, thrilling the crowd with breakaway dunks and even talking trash on his way to 15 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists.
But he was only part of the success, as Tyrese Haliburton and Paolo Banchero were terrific on defense, battling the bigger Greeks in the post and piling up stops. Haliburton blocked two shots and Banchero, who continues to get minutes at backup center, refused to yield in the post.
“With the talent that we have 1-through-12 regardless of who it is, we like our chances against anybody,” Reaves said. “The first unit wears down the opponents so quick because of the type of basketball that we play — fast, physical defense. So every time we get in the game, that’s our goal is to turn the intensity up and try to wear out teams.”
Josh Hart, who played some of his most effective minutes with the team thus far, and Cameron Johnson were part of some swarming defensive spurts with the “backups.”
“Josh is just a winner. People ask what position does he play? He just, he plays winner,” Kerr said. “At one point turned to me and said, ‘Some people get 50/50 balls. He gets the 30/70 balls.’ I thought that was really well said.”
Center Georgios Papagiannis, a 2016 lottery pick of the Phoenix Suns, scored 17 points to lead Greece.
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