It felt like a glorified exhibition from early on and that’s bad news for the victors, writes Emmet Ryan. Austin Reaves may be beloved by the locals but cruise control in Manila isn’t ideal even if it lead to a comprehensive win over Greece
Take your pick really. Staring down the interior D of the USA side from the far end of the court, it was impossible not to notice the sheer length. Arms out wide from Anthony Edwards, Jaren Jackson Jr, and Brandon Ingram, the one thing that stood was simply how wide their arms spread. This may not be the best team available for the USA but it’s identity is strikingly obvious.
Despite this, it wasn’t like Greece couldn’t create shots in the opening quarter. The Giannis Antetokounmpo sized hole in the roster is unavoidable, not to mention all the other absences, but Thomas Walkup, Georgios Papagiannis, and Kostas Papanikolaou all had plenty of nous to create space and opportunities.
Even at this early stage however it had the air of an exhibition to it rather than a blood feud rematch. The biggest cheer early on came when Austin Reaves, who has become the crowd super-favourite in Manila just by existing, entered the floor for the first time. Nobody out there wanted to get hurt or, really, even risk getting into foul trouble.
The locals really can’t get enough of Reaves. A dunk in the second quarter brought the house down as the USA began to create some sort of breathing room. He’s obviously good at basketball, he’s also objectively not the best player on this team and it’s hard to argue he’s the most exciting but he’s definitely the man in Manila right now. Be careful with the World Cup fame Austin, Kenneth Faried left Bilbao in 2014 as a god, made the all-tournament team, then ended up not really capitalising on it at all.
It really was only the explosive plays or anything Reaves did that got the crowd going here. They seemed to get that this was effectively a warm-up game for both sides. Greece already have their minds on Lithuania and Montenegro in the next round, despite having to get past New Zealand first, whereas the USA were happy to just try a few different looks to work out what stuck. By the mid point of the second, any discussion of the result felt moot. This was what it was and we knew it going in.
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With such a light looking run to the knockout rounds, noting that Lithuania and Montenegro will undoubtedly play them hard but with little likelihood of keeping it close on the scoreboard, there’s a clear concern for this USA side developing that is out of its control.
Canada is playing angry and hurting on teams, Germany looks like a unit ready to compete, and there are certainly other sides potential ahead on the menu that will have been far more battle-tested than the Americans come the business end of the tournament. Like it or not, even with a roster that may not feature anyone on the plane to Paris next year, the only acceptable result for the USA at any international tournament is gold.If it is capable of just running up the score on everyone, that’s fine, but there are sides across this World Cup who are not on the radar right now that will undoubtedly prove capable of making life a mess for the USA. There has been no need to find that extra gear yet and the Canadians are currently reminding me of the lead in Sisu (I watched it on the plane here, lots of fun) in that they may not be immortal but they have that refusal to die vibe mixed with ability to wreak havoc about them that should have everyone on notice.
Greece won’t worry. They didn’t disgrace themselves and will wholly expect to win what looks a mismatch with New Zealand to progress to the second group phase. A word of caution to the Greeks on that, make use of the rest day well. Nobody expects anything from New Zealand and they’ll come out motivated. The rust that comes off a game played as casually as Monday’s with the US must be shook off long before getting to the gym. No point in getting an unnecessary fright or worse.
The one real surprise from the evening was that this wasn’t a full house. The ticket prices are certainly an issue for locals which explains it partially but even many of the corporate box seats, less impacted by price sensitivity, were empty throughout. The World Cup is here because Philippines is absolutely wild about basketball but it hasn’t exactly brought the country to a standstill as was hoped.