We are finally coming to the moments of truth in the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. After the first two days of second-round play, we know:
● Six of the quarterfinal teams (all 4-0):
=> Group I: Argentina and Poland
=> Group J: Serbia and Spain
=> Group L: France and Australia
● In Group K, the U.S. shot just 36.4% from the field, but held Greece to only 31.4% and had a 50-40 rebounding edge on the way to a 69-53 victory that sent the U.S. to 4-0, but did not clinch a berth in the quarters yet.
● Possible quarterfinal match-ups include the U.S. vs. Australia or France and Serbia vs. Argentina or Poland.
In the opening second-round games, Serbia crushed Puerto Rico, 90-47 and Spain got by Italy, 67-60 in Group J; Australia edged the Dominican Republic, 82-76 and France got by Lithuania, 78-75 in Group L.
In Group K, the Czech Republic continued its surprising run with a 93-71 pounding of Brazil, which will play the U.S. next. Assuming the U.S. beats Brazil, the winner of the Czech-Greece game will go to the quarterfinals.
The much-anticipated U.S.-Greece match was a test for the American defense, playing against NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo. And the defense rose up, holding Antetokounmpo to just 15 points off 11 shots in 27 minutes of play. He also had 13 rebounds to lead both teams, but it was far from enough.
The U.S. had a small 19-17 lead at the quarter, but clamped down in the second quarter, outscoring Greece 19-8 for a 38-25 lead. After a 16-12 third quarter, the U.S. had a 54-37 edge after three and cruised in.
“The defense is ahead of the offense, for sure, but that’s expected with 12 guys who’ve never played with each other before,” said U.S. coach Gregg Popovich. “It’s pretty easy to figure out. Each day that we have, we work on our execution to get better and better, and these coaches will learn what’s best for this group of guys.”
As usual, Kemba Walker keyed the U.S. team with 15 points and Donovan Mitchell had 10. Jaylen Brown had a team-high nine rebounds and Myles Turner and Harrison Barnes each had seven boards. Jayson Tatum did not play due to a sprained left ankle.
The alarm bells continued ringing concerning the U.S. three-point shooting. The Americans made only 7-30 vs. Greece and are now 45-137 for the tournament (32.8%).
But the U.S. is still undefeated and Saturday’s game was a good indication that Popovich and his coaching crew are finding ways to gradually increase the cohesion and toughness of this team as it continues through the tournament. It will need even a much better effort to beat Brazil and then in a possible match-up with Australia in the quarterfinals.