Can you have an unimpressive 27-point win?
There were undoubtedly positives for Team USA, which showed resilience after a slow start, got strong play from Paolo Banchero and Austin Reaves off the bench, and used their depth of talent to pull away for a 99-72 win over New Zealand in their World Cup opener.
USA Basketball is now 1-0 in group play and will face Greece (without Giannis Antetokounmpo) next on Monday.
Anthony Edwards added 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds, Jaren Jackson Jr. had a dozen points (but fouled out), and both Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Haliburton scored 10. Reuben Te Rangi led New Zealand with 15 points.
Despite the final score, this was not a dominant performance by the Americans. It didn’t strike fear into the hearts of any of the other top contenders in this World Cup (Canada’s win over France was a far more impressive opener, for example).
“I thought we could do a much better job being physical, getting stops, rebounding, getting out running,” Tyrese Haliburton said after the game, via Joe Viray. “We could have done a much better job. But the great thing is hopefully we’ve got seven more games to improve on that.”
Maybe New Zealand doing the Haka before the game threw the Americans off their stride, but New Zealand raced out to a 14-4 lead to open the game. After a timeout and a few words from Steve Kerr the Americans settled down and tied the game 16-16.
New Zealand did a few things did a few things that future USA opponents will try to replicate. As Haliburton noted, New Zealand didn’t let the USA get out and run (at least for three quarters), forcing them into a half court game. The Americans helped by turning the ball over 10 times in the first half, and them shooting 3-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes led to a 98.1 offensive rating from Team USA in the first half. New Zealand was able to hang around.
Late in the first half the USA pounded the ball inside, got strong play from Austin Reaves off the bench (he is a huge fan favorite in the Philippines), and that was enough to create a little separation and a 45-36 lead at halftime. Reaves finished the game with a dozen points and again — along with Haliburton and Banchero — showed the American’s bench and depth has been the best part of this team (as it was in the tune-up games).
The third quarter started with more of the same from the starters and again it was the bench — this is where Banchero took over with some threes — saw the USA pull away late in the quarter to lead 76-58. The fourth saw the game get a little more open as the Americans wore down New Zealand, and that led to the blowout final score.
One thing to watch going forward: New Zealand was able to get some matchups it likes thanks to the USA’s desire to switch every pick on defense and count on their athleticism to cover them. New Zealand didn’t have the talent on the court to really exploit this, but a handful of teams the USA could see deep in the tournament (Canada, France, Australia) do.
The other looming question: Will Steve Kerr keep this starting five? Should Reaves and Haliburton start? Kerr has stuck with his starting five though the USA’s tune-ups and a 27-point win doesn’t scream “we need a change.” However, this team is just better when Haliburton and Reaves are on the floor, and games are coming where the USA can’t fall behind by 10 in the opening minutes.
For now, it is all good for USA Basketball. It’s 1-0 and looking strong in Group C with a couple more group games to go.