By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
SHENZHEN, China -- With a little more than three minutes to go in the third quarter of the United States Men's National Team's 69-53 win over Greece at the FIBA World Cup on Saturday, Giannis Antetokounmpo caught the ball in the post, just above the left block. Marcus Smart was guarding him and no other U.S. defender was within 10 feet.
But when Antetokounmpo spun toward the baseline, Derrick White raced over from the right elbow and cut off his path toward a reverse layup. Antetokounmpo picked up his dribble and spun back toward the middle, where he was met by Myles Turner. Caught in a crowd of three American defenders, he kicked the ball out to Nick Calathes, who Turner had been defending, on the left wing.
Before Calathes could shoot, Jaylen Brown had rotated over from the foul line. Calathes rotated the ball to Kostas Papanikolaou at the top of the key, but Donovan Mitchell was closing out hard, so Papanikolaou swung the ball to Ioannis Bourousis on the right wing, where White was racing back. And as Bourousis made one more pass toward Ioannis Papapetrou in the right corner, the shot clock expired.
The defense forced a turnover with a combination of execution and effort. Smart pumped his fist, while White clapped hard three times. Brown and Turner slapped five. Assistant coaches Steve Kerr and Lloyd Pierce got up off the bench, threw their fists in the air and screamed.
"The reactions showed where our pride is at," Mitchell said afterward. "We've had great offensive possessions. But the reaction from the bench, from the coaches, from the guys on the floor, the way we all reacted to that was huge, because that's where we hang our hat. That's what we want to do.
"That was a big possession, being able to lock in and then rotate out of that. It's tough to do. It's not as easy as we made it look that play."
That was the story of the game. Not the turnover part (Greece only committed 10), but the U.S. executing its game plan of showing Antetokounmpo a crowd and forcing other guys to beat them. Antetokounmpo shot 7-for-11, but after scoring five points in the first minute of the game, he finished with just 15. And because his teammates shot so poorly - Greek players that didn't win the NBA MVP award last season shot 25 percent - he didn't have a single assist.
The last United States defeat at a major tournament was to Greece at the semifinals of the 2006 World Championship. And after that loss, USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski referred to Greek stars Theo Papaloukas and Vassilis Spanoulis as "number four" and "number seven."
After that, the U.S. improved its scouting and Krzyzewski made a point to learn (and pronounce) the names of every key player for every opponent. This year, the U.S. scouting staff, led by Jeff Van Gundy, will leave no stone unturned.
The game plan for Saturday went far beyond "We should focus on Giannis, because he's the best player." The Americans dug into the numbers and realized that only one of Antetokounmpo's teammates had shot well both for Greece this summer and in their previous professional season. That player was Papapetrou.
"He was the lone guy that had shot pretty consistently in the tournament and in his previous season," Joe Harris explained. "The rest of the guys [were] not that consistent from three. So that's why we wanted to get into a close-out game, where we just loaded up on Giannis and then we're cognizant of Papapetrou, and then everybody else, it's almost like you're closing out short."
The game plan was not executed so well on the first possession of the game when Antetokounmpo isolated on Harrison Barnes, drove toward the left block, and then spun to the middle. Neither weak-side defender - Kemba Walker or Mitchell - was there to meet the spin move and Antetokounmpo laid the ball in for the first two points of the game. He then hit a pull-up three over Barnes on the next possession.
But the Americans didn't panic.
"At the end of the day, he's an MVP," Mitchell said. "So he's going to make plays, going to make shots. But the biggest thing for us is not to overreact."
The Americans would go on to shoot just 36 percent themselves, but still win by 16, because they held Greece to just 53 points on 69 possessions (0.77 per). In fact, Greece scored less than a point per possession in all four quarters. Antetokounmpo didn't play at all in the fourth, but that was one of their better offensive quarters. Over the second and third, Greece scored just 20 points on 34 possessions.
"Collectively, everybody was so locked in," Harris said. "Every time you play against somebody like Giannis, you have to be really locked into the game plan. The rules allow for us to pack in, make it difficult for him driving the ball, try force him to try to beat you over the top. I thought for pretty much most of the evening, with the exception of the first play of the game, we did pretty good."
Through Saturday, the U.S. has the World Cup's No. 1 defense, having allowed its opponents to score an estimated 82 points per 100 possessions.
"We all love playing defense," Smart said. "We knew coming in what we could do."
The offense now ranks just 12th, having scored an estimated 110 points per 100. While the Americans have taken a tournament-high 46 percent of their shots from 3-point range, they've shot just 32.8 percent (18th of 32 teams) from beyond the arc.
Maybe that number gets better going forward, and maybe the defense has to keep getting better as the U.S. faces tougher opponents. Their two potential opponents in the quarterfinals (Australia and France) currently rank sixth and third in offensive efficiency, respectively.
"When you look at past USA teams, scoring has not been an issue," Barnes said. "There's been a lot of talent. But for us, we know that defense is how we're going stay in games, how we're going to be able to compete. I think we've done a good job of focusing on that, and that's really what's carrying us."
Four games down, four to go. The U.S. will play Brazil in its final pool-play game on Monday with quarterfinal positioning on the line. Then it's on to the knockout rounds, where the defense may have to be even better than its been so far.
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