MANILA, Philippines — The most notable detail of Team USA’s 110-62 victory Wednesday over Jordan was how the Americans started, because the crowd of 10,511 at Mall of Asia Arena all understood how this one would finish. After deploying the same five-man lineup for each of the first two games during this FIBA World Cup opening round, and dating back to Team USA’s second intrasquad scrimmage in Las Vegas, head coach Steve Kerr made a change, inserting forward Josh Hart into the frontcourt next to center Jaren Jackson Jr. in place of swingman Brandon Ingram.
“The tricky part with FIBA is you only have a few weeks to figure out your team, as opposed to an NBA season where we have six, seven, eight months,” Kerr said. “We just felt like it was important to take a look at Josh with the starting group and Brandon with the next group, and see if the combinations fit.”
Kerr approved of the result, albeit not against the greatest benchmark of competition. He would not commit to his staff’s lineup decision lasting the remainder of the tournament, but with Hart joining his pair of Villanova teammates on the roster — Knicks ball-handler Jalen Brunson, and Nets forward Mikal Bridges — the synergy between the three former Wildcats was obvious. They combined for several sequences pinging two passes among the trio for wide-open looks from deep.
“You just don’t lose it,” Bridges said. “Playing with JB all those years and Josh as well, it’s just second nature. All those practices and games we had at ’Nova, it just feels so natural.”
Perhaps it was the switch, or the fact Jordan entered the matchup 0-2 in World Cup play, but this contest brought the Americans’ first dominant opening stretch of the tournament. Team USA built a 20-4 lead, and no Jordanian scored outside of nationalized former first-round pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson until there was only 3:33 left to play in the opening frame.
“Teams have been coming out and throwing the first punch,” Bridges said, “but I think we threw the first punch today.”
For all the pregame festivities and in-arena theatrics, there was a notable lull amid the audience for much of the lopsided affair. Jordan’s offensive possessions brought near silence trip after trip down the floor, aside from when Hollis-Jefferson touched the ball and the crowd burst into chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” in recognition of the Chester, Pennsylvania, native’s resemblance to the great Kobe Bryant. For a competition that has often drawn comparisons to the NCAA tournament among NBA personnel on the ground in Manila, this outing had the feel of a titanic No. 1 seed versus a punchless No. 16 hopeful.
Anthony Edwards did send the arena into a swoon when he sprang into a vicious windmill dunk with 5:42 left in the third quarter, pushing the advantage to 75-39. The Timberwolves’ All-Star scorer was in rhythm from the jump, contributing 13 first-quarter points en route to a game-high 22. He knocked down pull-up triples, finished a gliding and-one layup off an inbounds pass and flushed a two-handed jam following a dropoff pass from Bridges.
“It’s nothing that changed for me. I was as aggressive as I was last game,” Edwards said. “Just me staying aggressive and staying confident is something that I do every game. It paid off today.”
Kerr signaled for timeout with 3:24 to play in the third, emptying his bench and getting sparsely used 12th man Walker Kessler into action quite early. The Americans would lead 87-49 after the quarter ended, with 10 more minutes still left to play. And with their final tally north of the century mark, Team USA posted back-to-back 100-plus-point games at a World Cup for the first time since 2006. The Americans also moved to 60-2 all time in World Cup preliminary-round games, not losing since 1998 against Lithuania, which Team USA will draw in the second round Group J, along with Montenegro.
Ingram looked far more comfortable playing among the reserves after largely residing in the corner for much of the offense alongside Team USA’s starters. There’s a noticeably zippier pace that Tyrese Haliburton attempts to establish compared to Brunson’s more methodical probing off the bounce. And on two plays, Ingram was the one driving left and finding Haliburton all alone in the right corner for a wide-open triple.
Ingram told Yahoo Sports that Kerr informed him of the lineup change Wednesday morning.
“They thought it was a better fit for me playing with Tyrese and playing with some guys that are a little less ball dominant than Jalen and Ant,” Ingram said. “They just talked about it being a better fit, and I agreed with them.”
Ingram has not come off the bench for live game action since his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers. He paid extra mind to keeping his legs warm and stretching while he watched the contest’s opening minutes from the sideline. “I was able to get prepared for it,” Ingram said. “It was just a different lineup, and I was excited about the opportunity.”
The lack of competition, though, may be something for Team USA to be wary of. Lithuania and Montenegro present much more formidable lineups than what the Americans have seen so far in the Philippines, from NBA centers Jonas Valančiūnas and Nikola Vučević, respectively, to several other veterans with NBA experience.
Looking further ahead to the knockout stage of the tournament, whomever Team USA could face from the opposite side of the World Cup bracket, such as dominant Team Canada, will have needed to go through a strong second-round pool that also features Slovenia, Germany, Australia and Spain, which all entered the competition in the top-seven of the World Cup’s power rankings.
At present, the Americans don’t seem to be worried.
“We’ll be ready, no matter what,” Bridges said. “It don’t matter who we played before. We gonna be ready.”