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Team USA routs New Zealand 99-72 in Steve Kerr’s official coaching debut as the nation’s head coach

The Americans overcome a shaky start to establish their dominance.

2023 FIBA World Cup - USA Men’s National Team v New Zealand Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

MANILA, Philippines — It wasn’t the start everyone expected from Team USA. They led the first quarter by only one point after having been down by 10 at one point early in the quarter — a surprising beginning to their FIBA World Cup campaign.

Offensively, there were stagnant possessions despite the attempt to run half-court sets. The problem often came whenever the initial set bogged down and there was no plan B or C to lean on, forcing the Americans to improvise hastily either through “Angle” or high ballscreens, or the good old isolation possession.

Defensively, the Americans were surprised early on by the Kiwis’ rim pressure and apparent ease in terms of getting paint touches. These would generate high-quality looks up close or open threes caused by a defense forced to pinch in toward the paint.

The Kiwis were also physical, especially whenever their bigs happened to switch onto Team USA’s smaller guards and wings off of ballscreens. Paolo Banchero and Jaren Jackson Jr. were able to survive out on the perimeter against New Zealand’s quick guard play, but having a big guarding a small further from the paint meant that a small defender was guarding a bigger man down low.

Fortunately for Team USA, New Zealand wasn’t able to capitalize on the mismatches due to excellent fronting by the American guards and wings. But this may be a concern down the line against more quality opposition who can find multiple ways to feast on a guard fighting for his life down low.

When asked about that concern, Steve Kerr was confident about the team being able to tailor their defensive coverages depending on the opponent:

Jackson — the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the world’s preeminent switch big — had no problems in perimeter defense but ended up fouling out. It was Banchero who impressed on both ends of the floor: 21 points on 8/10 shooting from the field (6/8 on twos, 2/2 on threes) and 86% TS. He also added four rebounds, a single assist, and four blocks. Team USA outscored New Zealand by 22 points during Banchero’s 19 minutes on the floor.

Not having established himself previously as someone who could feature in a switch-everything scheme, Banchero’s perimeter defense turned a lot of heads tonight:

You can see the aforementioned concern in the possession below when it comes to switching everything:

Tyrese Haliburton gets switched onto a big after the ballscreen, with Banchero handling a guard. Haliburton fronts to the best of his abilities with a bit of help from Austin Reaves, the low man who shows early help by pinching in from the corner. Ultimately, Banchero proves that he’s capable of handling assignments up top and manages to smother the drive using excellent footwork and hip mobility.

Team USA could only muster a 98.1 offensive rating at the half against New Zealand, a far cry from their previous five exhibition games where they all posted offensive ratings greater than 110.0. Their offense corrected toward the mean, however, finishing the night scoring 116.4 points per 100 possessions.

However, it wasn’t the starters who provided the bulk of their offense. They were outscored by their bench counterparts, 54-45. Banchero led the scoring charge, with support from the likes Reaves and Haliburton.

What I’m liking about Reaves — besides the scoring flair that helped him finish with 12 points on 4/6 shooting (2/4 on twos, 2/2 on threes) — is how quite adept he is as a passer in the pick-and-roll.

When Team USA runs “55” (double drag screens/double ballscreens — something the Golden State Warriors run a lot themselves), Reaves bullets a pass through a momentary window of defensive weakness:

Reaves’ ability to manipulate his defenders with handling guile makes one wonder why no team even bothered to pry him away from the Los Angeles Lakers, who managed to retain him on a bargain deal. Here he is in “Miami” action (a handoff flowing into a ballscreen) shaking off his defender (with a little bit of help from a screen-angle adjustment by Jackson) to get himself open for a three:

Haliburton contributed 10 points on 4/5 shooting (2/2 on twos and 2/3 on threes). But it was his trademark joyous brand of passing and playmaking that produced oohs and aahs from the crowd.

It was clear that the name of the game whenever the second unit came in was pace and running the floor, whether it be off a make or a miss. Haliburton clearly is the man who controls the tempo when it comes to that regard.

It’s enough that running the floor puts pressure on the Kiwis to scramble back in transition; Haliburton added insult to injury by deceptively looking off Cam Johnson in the corner, fooling defenders (and everyone in the room) into thinking the pass was going one way, only for it to whiz toward a completely unexpected spot:

After the game, Haliburton gave an honest assessment of themselves on both ends of the floor:

Haliburton emphasized the need for the team to get to their second and third actions on offense (instead of devolving into “default” options like isolation), something they had trouble with against New Zealand. That’s something to look out for next time against a much tougher opponent in Greece, who they will be facing on Monday, August 28, 8:40 p.m. Manila time (August 28, 8:40 a.m. ET in the United States).

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