2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup

Team USA faces an MVP-sized challenge to start second round

U.S. squad readying for what Giannis (and Greece) will bring in next game

SHANGHAI — Once the United States Men’s National Team went up 13-0 against Japan on Thursday, the more interesting development in regard to the Americans’ path to the elimination rounds was taking place about 200 miles away in Nanjing, where Greece and New Zealand were playing for the final spot in the second round of the FIBA World Cup.

It was just a five-point game midway through the fourth quarter, but Greece held on for a six-point win, setting up a matchup with the United States in Shenzhen on Saturday (8:30 a.m. ET). That will be one of two games that the Americans play in second-round Group K, the other coming Monday against Brazil.

The top two teams from each second round group advance to the quarterfinals, and first round records (and point differentials) carry over to the second round. So the game against Greece and reigning Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will not be a do-or-die situation for the U.S., which can probably lose one of its two games in Shenzhen and still advance to the knockout rounds. Greece, because it has already lost to Brazil, probably needs to win both of its games.

No matter which side has more urgency, its a matchup that we’ve been looking forward to since before this tournament started. It’s the USA vs. the MVP, maybe the first time since prior to 1992 that the U.S. didn’t have the best player on the floor in a game at the Olympics or World Cup.

The Americans just don’t see it as something special.

* FIBA World Cup recap: Sept. 5

“You’re excited about a challenge,” Donovan Mitchell said. “Every matchup is great. But if we start to look at it as a bigger game than what it is, you lose sight of what we’re focusing on. So we’ll just approach it like a regular game and do what we do.”

“We know the MVP’s on that team, of course,” Kemba Walker added. “But we’re just going to treat it as another game. We know it’s going to be tough. We know how good of a player he is.”

Of course, a “regular game” at the World Cup is not like Game 54 of the NBA season. There can’t be any let up, and the U.S. has to keep getting better each time it plays, because, frankly, it hasn’t been the best team in this tournament to this point. A loss to Greece would put a ton of pressure on the U.S. in its game against Brazil (currently 3-0) on Monday.

I think this is the first game that we’ve done 40 minutes of great defense, great offense. Obviously, even when shots weren’t falling, we were still getting back and communicating.”

Team USA guard Donovan Mitchell

Their one-point, overtime victory over Turkey surely put a scare in the Americans. And though it’s hard to compare that performance with Thursday’s against an overmatched Japan squad, they clearly played with a little more focus and energy on the final night of the first round.

“Obviously, you play with a sense of urgency,” Joe Harris said. “Our game the other night against Turkey was a realization that everybody can compete in this tournament. And then you watch their game today with [the Czech Republic] beating them. FIBA is a one-and-done type tournament. It’s similar to March Madness, where there’s upsets all the time. Teams are capable of knocking off one another.

“[Tonight’s opponent] could have been Japan, it could have been Greece, it could have been Brazil. You have to have that respect and that appropriate fear for everybody you play against.”

Appropriate fear showed up on the defensive end of the floor, where Japan, which had an encouraging performance two days earlier against the Czech Republic, went scoreless on its first eight possessions of the game and scored just eight points on 21 possessions in the third quarter.

“I think this is the first game that we’ve done 40 minutes of great defense, great offense,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, even when shots weren’t falling, we were still getting back and communicating.”

With the blowout, the U.S. goes into the second round as the No. 1 defensive team at the World Cup, having allowed an estimated 83 points per 100 possessions. The No. 1 offense by a wide margin (140 points per 100 possessions) belongs to Serbia, which will play Italy on Friday and also face Spain in Group J.

A 33-point halftime margin also allowed the Americans to try out their 2-3 zone defense for most of the second half. They probably won’t ever use it in such a heavy dose again, but getting some reps in on Thursday could give coach Gregg Popovich the confidence to utilize it in a time of need (and to take an opponent out of rhythm) going forward.

“Teams do it to us,” Mitchell said, “and I think we got to be able to do it against other teams.”

Turkey did it to them on Tuesday, and that was a big reason the Americans blew a 15-point lead and probably should have lost. Japan came with a zone defense midway through the first quarter on Thursday, and initially, the U.S. struggled again, scoring just three times on their final 11 possessions of the period.

But that was mostly with a second-unit lineup that included both Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee. With both Marcus Smart (left quad strain) and Jayson Tatum (left ankle sprain) out, the U.S. played two of its three centers together for the first time in its eight games (including exhibitions).

The zone offense improved as the game went on, and it was clear that the Americans wanted to be sharper with their ball and player movement against the 2-3, which they weren’t totally prepared for two nights earlier.

“Obviously, it caught us by surprise a little bit against Turkey,” Mitchell said. “But we came in ready for it today.”

“We were trying some different stuff,” Harris added, “sort of basic 1-3-1 sets, where we overload the zone. I think we just did a better job of kind of denting the zone, so we got into the paint, whether it was penetration, ball movement. We played with better pace. The ball was moving. I think against Turkey, we got a little stagnant, because it threw us off a little bit when they stretched out the zone.”

The zone offense, like everything with this team, continues to be a work in progress. Next stop, Shenzhen, where the Kia MVP will be ready with his own sense of urgency.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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