MANILA, Philippines — Their booming sound reverberated from Section 419 atop the Mall of Asia plaza on Monday. Pelargoi, known as the official fan club of the Greek men’s national team, always plays a 51 x 31 cm drum. She’s traveled all over from Venezuela to China, shining alongside bouncing alongside FIBA orange and white basketballs, while loyal Belargoy follows her beloved team around the world – even as Giannis Antetokounmpo misses the World Cup due to surgery on his shoulder. The knee is out of season.
More than two dozen die-hard Greeks have followed the national team for two decades, waving their blue and white flag on the stadium awnings just as they did against Steve Kerr’s Team USA. More have flocked to Manila. And Greece’s offense kept up its fan base’s rhythmic pace at the start, racking up a high level of catch after catch with Nationals point guard Thomas Woukop and 7-foot-2 quarterback Georgios Papagiannis pulling off an early 9-8 advantage. On a firm favourite, Americans.
However, just as against New Zealand before them, Team USA’s reserve unit, led by impressive performances by goalkeepers Tyrese Halliburton and Austin Reeves, created some breathing room, this time in the second quarter of the match, without waiting until the third frame. The Americans would run away with a 109-81 win, thanks to the collective effort from the top down of the roster.
“Our thought process in every game is to wear the opponent down,” Kerr said. “We’re 12th in our list. We’re just trying to be consistent in every possession and put pressure on the opposition, and we needed to do that tonight because Greece played very well.
The Freshmen shook off their slow start against the Tall Blacks on Saturday. There was no need to give any players an early push onto the bench on Monday, so much so that Kerr essentially opted to make a full five-man-five substitution against the Greeks late in the opening period. After leaving several runners up short on Saturday, Captain Jalen Bronson put his head down again and again and entered the Walkup, bumping and twisting his way to stellar finishes as if avoiding elimination from the playoffs against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden.
“It just starts with my mentality and focus. And that’s what I’ve always worked on since I was two years old,” said Bronson, who finished with 13 points and two assists. “When I miss things like that It’s up to the mechanics, it’s up to the focus. I just read how the defense plays and I only attack what I see.
Jarin Jackson Jr. was also a force, even against the much larger Papagiannis, who led all scorers with 17 goals. Jackson sent the energetic crowd into a frenzy with back-to-back saves against Thanasis Antetokounmpo late in the first quarter. The energetic Greek forward blasted his way first past slender American swingman Brandon Ingram on the left block, only for Jackson to pounce and hit with a chokehold. Then, after the US switched, Antetokounmpo was scurrying into the frontcourt.
“I saw he was in front of me. I thought he was closer to me, and I had to stop running and make a play. I jumped kind of wildly and he jumped wildly as well,” Jackson said. But the Grizzlies star and Defensive Player of the Year, who committed Foul in the USA team’s opening game of the tournament, he hit the power hard for the second straight stoppage. “I know he was trying to overwhelm me,” Jackson said with a smile.
The Americans’ clear advantage over two World Cup matches remains their superior depth. With Halliburton passing the ball like a quarterback, to use Kerr’s own analogy from Sunday’s practice, and Reeves attacking the gaps with his brilliant ball handling, the Greeks had no match for the Americans. Reeves slammed another slam dunk into the open court and stabbed the defense with his impressive change-of-pace dribbles.
“Our second unit, we’re just trying to watch the game and see what we can do differently,” Halliburton said. “When you wear that uniform, when you play for Team USA, it’s so much bigger than you. You have to understand that, and you have to understand the legends that came off the bench before us.
“They’re not a real second unit,” Jackson added. “They are the first unit in disguise.”
Reeves leads the Americans with 15 points from the bench. Halliburton added nine players of his own, with three assists, including a great pass to Paolo Panchero, as he faked a pass to Cam Johnson in the left corner before bouncing perfectly into the backup position for Team USA.
New York Knicks hare Josh Hart grabbed 11 rebounds, his magnetic hands conjuring up five rebounds from the offensive glass as if through some kind of attraction.
“At one point, (Team USA assistant Eric Spoelstra) turned to me and said, ‘Some people get 50-50 balls,'” Kerr told reporters. He gets 30-70 balls.
The Americans are tied with Jordan, led by former NBA first-round draft pick Ronday Hollis-Jefferson, on Wednesday in their final game of the opening group stage. With a shaved head, jersey number 24 and a headband on his right forearm, Hollis Jefferson was doing a self-proclaimed Kobe Bryant impression at this tournament. He finished with 39 points, a World Cup-high, in Jordan’s 95-87 loss to New Zealand on Monday afternoon, including a wild four-point play to send the game into overtime with 10 seconds left.
But this victory over Greece already guarantees Team USA qualification beyond the first stage, as it starts 2-0 in Group C, as the Jordanians are yet to win in this four-team group.