Team USA Shows Balance, Depth in World Cup Exhibition Rout of Puerto Rico

Team USA claimed a 117-74 against Puerto Rico in its first World Cup tuneup game, played in Las Vegas. Indeed, every USA player contributed, as seven scored in double figures.Jalen Brunson drives past Tremont Waters

To note, Anthony Edwards and Cam Johnson each had 15 points, to go along with Mikal Bridges’ 14. Also, Jaren Jackson Jr. scored 12, while Jalen Brunson, Bobby Portis, and Brandon Ingram each put up 11 points.

Overall, the U.S. backcourt stuffed the stat sheet, as Tyrese Haliburton had 12 assists off the bench, and starting point guard Brunson grabbed 12 rebounds. The Puerto Rican squad was led by former NBA player Tremont Waters, who was actually Victor Wembanyama’s old teammate on Boulogne-Levallois in the French league. Notably, Waters finished with a game-high 17 points and five steals for Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico and the USA have some history with each other on the basketball court. Some might remember the 2004 Olympics, in which the Puerto Ricans beat the Americans 92-73 and (the 19-point deficit) is still the largest defeat for a USA men’s basketball team.

And to start last night’s game, it looked as if Puerto Rico could hang, as they were leading for a good portion of the first quarter. To specify, the game was tied 12-12 in the first eight minutes, and around this time the fans in T-Mobile Arena cheered extra loud when Lakers guard Austin Reaves entered the game.

Certainly, there was a momentum change as the excitement from the crowd carried over to the court, when Reaves made a corner 3-pointer and a pull-up jumper to help push Team USA to go on a 12-2 run. While Puerto Rico kept it close in the first half, the USA maintained the lead and came out firing in the second half. And then the Americans started to pull away towards the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth, bursting to a 20-0 run before winning by 43.

USA coach Steve Kerr used a starting lineup for the first exhibition game featuring Bridges, Ingram, Edwards, Brunson and Jackson Jr. This young team has a good balance of talent on offense and defense.

And this was seen in the first showcase game with the paint presence of Jackson, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. However, the Memphis big man — who led the NBA in fouls last year — got in foul trouble in this game. As such, this will be worth monitoring all through the tournament, since FIBA rules only allow for five fouls, unlike the NBA’s six.

With this in mind, Kerr may look to use Magic power forward Paolo Banchero as a backup center throughout the World Cup.

“One of the things we really found in ’21 in the Tokyo Olympics was having a 5 that can push the ball in transition like Bam Adebayo did and create plays is very difficult for FIBA teams to handle,” Kerr said. “He (Banchero) can play some 4, as he showed, but he’ll play plenty of 5 as well.”

In addition, the team played solid perimeter defense, as Edwards totaled four steals/

“I was just trying to anticipate where the offense was going,” he said. “Just using my defensive skills that God blessed me with.”

Seeing that, defense will be the key in Team USA’s next matchup as they will have to try to contain superstar Luka Doncic in their next exhibition game against Slovenia.

To clarify, this showcase game in Las Vegas is the first of five exhibition games the team will play before heading to Manila for the start of the World Cup. On Tuesday, the USA will fly to Malaga, Spain, to face Slovenia on Saturday, August 12 and play another game against Spain on Sunday, August 13. Then they will travel to the United Arab Emirates to play their final two exhibition games, on August 18 against Greece and on August 20 vs. Germany.

This year’s team looks to turn around the disappointing narrative after their seventh-place finish in the 2019 World Cup in China, which was the worst-ever finish for any American men’s basketball team in a major international tournament. Albeit, the 2023 Team USA roster is completely changed from the previous World Cup, as it is filled with a lot of new young NBA players. 

And after Monday’s performance, there appears to be chemistry with this group. The ball movement and unselfish play for the young USA looks to be encouraging, as Brunson indicated.

“This is us playing together,” he said. “We’re still getting to know each other, but we have a lot of high character guys and winning is the number one priority for every single one of them.” 

Team USA will not be satisfied with any result other than winning a 2023 FIBA World Cup championship. They will look to start strong in the Philippines with their first World Cup games against New Zealand (August 26), Greece (August 28), and Jordan (August 30). 

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