MANILA, Philippines — By the end there was more than enough breathing room for Team USA to relax, file this one away, and move to Game 2 of the FIBA World Cup.
The Americans beat New Zealand as expected Saturday evening in the Philippines, some 12 hours ahead of the U.S. eastern coast, and the final score of 99-72 indicates there was no serious threat.
As their fellow countrymen wiped the sleep out of their eyes and washed the Friday night off of their faces, sleepily squinted toward ESPN2 or their phones, there was nothing that would raise alarm.
But if you happened to be up and locked into this one, or were one of the thousands inside Mall of Asia Arena as a first-hand witness, you emerged from the experience with questions. For this was a game Team USA trailed by as many as 10 in the first quarter, was still on the wrong end of early in the second, and threw the ball away enough for New Zealand to be within shouting distance for most of three quarters.
The trials and tribulations of the last two seasons of USA Basketball taught us all hard lessons about the raised level of competition around the world and therefore the narrower margin the mightiest basketball country on the planet has to work with.
But the Tall Blacks (New Zealand’s team name) have no NBA players, no one over 6-foot-10 and just two who are at least 6-foot-9, and maybe the most intimidating component to their attack is the traditional war dance they do on the court before the game.
If Team USA was to be tested before the quarterfinals of the World Cup, pundits wouldn’t have thought it would be this game.
Paolo Banchero was the Americans’ leading scorer with 21 points in 19 minutes off the bench, seeing ample court time between Jaren Jackson Jr.’s foul trouble and Brandon Ingram’s general struggles. Anthony Edwards added 14 points and seven rebounds, and crowd favorite (thanks to his day job with the Los Angeles Lakers) Austin Reaves contributed 12 points and six assists.
Austin Reaves is active on both ends of the floor 👀
The Lakers’ youngster is up to a +21 as the third quarter winds down in Team USA’s group stage game against New Zealand.
— The Athletic NBA (@TheAthleticNBA) August 26, 2023
Jackson added 12 points and four rebounds, but fouled out. Ingram, expected to be a serious scoring threat at power forward, scored just two points on 1-of-4 shooting.
The Americans committed 19 turnovers (Edwards had five), and New Zealand, with nine 3s, outshot them from deep. Reuben Te Rangi was the Tall Blacks’ leading scorer with 15 points.
Not to make excuses, but USAB’s awkward start was underway before the opening tip.
New Zealand took the court as a team with 30 minutes on the warmup clock, seconds after the last American players left the floor from their early shooting. Team USA was at least 10 minutes, maybe more, behind for its team warmup, and when the Americans finally emerged from the tunnel, they first had to take off their shooting shirts to pose for a FIBA-mandated photo.
After just a couple runs through the layup line for USA, both teams were escorted to the sideline for the start of the pregame entertainment program, which included a hip-hop dance troupe, followed by player introductions, and then national anthems for both teams.
While all of this was going on, a prankster in a New Zealand jersey and shorts came onto the court, walked past the USA bench as the Americans were being introduced, and went over to the Tall Blacks. The imposter was discovered and wrestled off the court by security.
And then, yes, we aren’t finished, New Zealand’s 12 players performed a traditional haka, which the Americans stood in attention to witness, out of respect.
After all of that, New Zealand was up 14-4 with 5:48 in the first quarter. The Americans had already committed four turnovers.
In the other Pool C game Saturday at Mall of Asia Arena, Greece beat Jordan, 92-71, behind 19 points from Giannoulis Larentzakis. Former NBA player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, playing for Jordan, led that team with 24 points and nine rebounds. USA and Greece play at 8:40 a.m. ET on Monday.
The Americans hammered the Greeks, 108-86, during exhibition play in Abu Dhabi last week. Remember, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is not playing in the World Cup due to recovery from offseason knee surgery.
This story will be updated.
(Photo: Ezra Acayan / Getty Images)