The path to the Second Round of the FIBA World Cup wasn’t without its challenges for Team USA, though it’d be hard to see that after a 53-point victory over Japan in the final game of Group E play. The United States scored the first 11 points of the game, never looked back, and eventually led by as many as 62 late in the fourth quarter to cruise to victory.
It was a cathartic win of sorts, especially in the way they twice snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Turkey on Tuesday. Even still, that win highlighted their vulnerability in a way today’s victory over Japan didn’t necessarily show a complete righting of the ship so to speak.
That said, Team USA did show a lot of positives in today’s win, taking full advantage of the Japanese defense to reel off highlight dunks and open looks galore, totaling a tournament high 25 assists in the process. Where the United States were better today than in the previous games was their willingness to bring the energy to the game. In a tournament where Team USA isn’t leagues more talented than the opposition, that dedication to effort may make or break them moving forward.
Despite cruising to victory, the lulls in Team USA’s offense was a problem throughout the game. Quick starts to quarters eventually devolved into a lot of chucking towards the end of those same quarters. As a team, they have yet to eclipse 50% shooting or 40% from three point range in any game this World Cup. Those inconsistencies only serve to highlight the necessity for a superior effort in addition to inventive coaching.
To close the game against Japan, Gregg Popovich went big with both Myles Turner and Brook Lopez in the game. Up 60, it’s hard to really gauge how much of an impact it did have, but the ability for Lopez to remain inside while Turner played away from the basket did allow Lopez to pick up one of his two blocks.
Turner himself finished Group E play averaging 6.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game, including three, nine, and two today against Japan. Turner has flashed a lot of positives in the three games even when the numbers haven’t been there, playing a key role defensively for Team USA on top of totaling eight offensive rebounds, including four today.
Turner led the way in rebounding on both ends for the United States, helping them to +25 on the glass and +12 on the offensive end. Though perhaps the most exciting play in Group E play from Turner is the one that’s always the most exciting: him stepping confidently into a wide open three as he did against Turkey.
Unfortunately, Turner ended up on the wrong side of the highlight reel today, getting posterized by Rui Hachimura late in the third quarter. But of course, that comes with the territory when you’re the top of the NBA in blocked shots. The roles were reversed a quarter later when Turner forced a turnover, opening up a fast break for Jaylen Brown, who put a poster himself on Joji Takeuchi.
The win moves Team USA to 3-0 in Group E. That record will carry over into Group K play where they’ll be joined by the Czech Republic after their surprise victory today over Turkey. Though the opponents will be tougher in the second round, Team USA enters Group K play as the top seed thanks to their point differential advantage, which will be important to keep an eye on should they stumble in either of these next two games.
Group K play will start Saturday for Team USA when they face Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece. With eight of Team USA’s 12 players having played in the East last season, including two teammates, there will be no shortage of familiarity with Antetokounmpo. That said, Greece entered the World Cup ranked eighth according FIBA, marking the stiffest challenger yet for Team USA, on top of being the first opponent the United States will face since at least the Soviet Union and Arvydas Sabonis in 1988 where they will not have the best player on the floor. In addition, Team USA will be without Jayson Tatum for at least this game.
The second of two Group K games will take place on Monday when they face fellow 3-0 opponent Brazil. The Brazilians feature NBA players Bruno Caboclo and Cristiano Felicio, as well as familiar veterans Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejao, themselves coming away with a thrilling late game win over Greece.