SHENZHEN, China (AP) — The MVP was good. The USA was better.
And the Antetokounmpo getting talked about most by the Americans when this much-anticipated World Cup matchup was over wasn’t Giannis — but rather Thanasis, the younger brother, who sent U.S. forward Harrison Barnes sprawling with an ill-advised foul from behind on a fast break in the final moments.
Barnes avoided injury, and the U.S. avoided defeat. Kemba Walker scored 15 points and handed out six assists, Donovan Mitchell scored 10 on his 23rd birthday and the U.S. beat Greece 69-53 to move on the cusp of qualifying for the quarterfinals.
“We played well,” Walker said. “We had a great game plan and we stuck to it and we were able to come out with a big win.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s MVP from the Milwaukee Bucks, scored 15 points but sat out the fourth quarter in a move Greek officials said was made to rest him for the team’s last-ditch effort to make the quarterfinals on Monday. He didn’t make himself available for postgame comment, telling officials that he was too upset.
The U.S. national team has won 57 consecutive games in international tournaments with NBA players, starting with the 2006 world championships bronze-medal game and continuing through every FIBA Americas, world championships, World Cup and Olympic event since. The streak started after a 101-95 loss to Greece in 2006 – a defeat that forced the U.S. to change its program.
The Americans haven’t lost in the biggest tournaments since.
“It was a good test for us,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “And it helped us get better. That’s our goal, to get better in every one of these games.”
Barnes and Derrick White each scored nine for the U.S., which can clinch a quarterfinal berth Monday in multiple ways – the simplest being a win over Brazil. There also are ways for the U.S. to move on even if it loses Monday.
It was the first time a reigning MVP faced the U.S. in a major tournament, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has made no secret of how much this event means to him. His eyes were closed as he mouthed along with the words of Greece’s national anthem pregame, and when the ball went up he came out firing.
He spun his way to a layup on the first possession, made a 3-pointer on Greece’s second possession and got fouled on a baseline drive on the next trip down the floor. That was five points in the first 43 seconds for Antetokounmpo – but nothing came easy the rest of the way, as the U.S. used no fewer than five different defenders on him at times.
Barnes drew the initial assignment, followed by the MVP’s Milwaukee teammate Khris Middleton, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Myles Turner.
“We just wanted to make it as hard as possible for him, and I think we did a good job,” Smart said.
Antetokounmpo had a steal and dunk late in the third, which got plenty of fans out of their seats and Greek fans waving flags. But his night ended soon afterward, although the drama was still going.
His brother’s foul from behind on Barnes came with 1:43 left in a 13-point game – Barnes jumped a pass for a steal near midcourt, had a clear path for a dunk and Thanasis Antetokounmpo sent him tumbling to the court with a hard hit that was ruled a common foul. Players from both teams engaged in words immediately after the play and again after the horn, and Barnes said he never got an apology.
“Game was over, so probably was a frustration play or something of that nature,” Barnes said.
U.S.: Mitchell’s birthday came a day after Joe Harris turned 28. … Smart, who has twice missed time with leg injuries this summer, slipped and fell as he chased a loose ball out of bounds with 1:11 left in the first. He stayed in the game. … The U.S. shot only 36%.
Greece: The outcome came five years to the day after the Greeks were ousted by Serbia in the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup. … Nick Calathes became the third Florida player to be part of a loss to the U.S. this summer; Andrew Nembhard played in the Americans’ pre-World Cup win over Canada in Australia, and Scottie Wilbekin played for Turkey in its overtime loss to the U.S. in the group stage.
Through four games, the U.S. has trailed for all of 7 minutes, 48 seconds – out of a possible 165 minutes. The Americans have led for 147:02, and games have been tied for 10:10.
The U.S. has held Japan and Greece to a combined 98 points in the last two games. That represents the fewest points the U.S. has allowed in consecutive games of a major international tournament since the 1988 Olympics, when the Americans gave up 92 in a two-game stretch against Egypt and Puerto Rico.
U.S.: Face Brazil (3-1) in a second-round finale Monday in Shenzhen.
Greece: Face the Czech Republic (3-1) in a second-round finale Monday in Shenzhen.