Awakening of the beast


At a glance

    There were anxious moments, most of it a question on confidence, or better yet cohesion. The chinks were obviously in display — and for one it seemed the opulence Team USA had brought disappeared in the thin air right after the first horn. 

    For the first 10 minutes, it was scary. The Americans struggled, the Kiwis were assertive. New Zealand was in no way afraid to slay the demigods from the west.

    But the USA figured it out in the middle quarters then cruised in perfect rhythm for an explosive finish. Steve Kerr, a four-time NBA champion coach, is an expert enough not to cling on to the things he couldn't control. Kerr's face from the dugout after the halftime break wasn't even an image of panic. Instead, he let the boys play, he let the pressure run through the nerves, and in one blow, one turn of momentum, brushed off the jitters in this Basketball World Cup the Team USA has been dying to rule again.

    Anthony Edwards takes a tough shot against New Zealand defenders. (AFP)

    Team USA came away from a maze of early errors and sprung to consciousness and greatness like what it was advertised to do against a New Zealand side not wanting a piece of shame against the deposed kings, with the young trio of Paolo Banchero, Anthony Edwards and Austin Reaves holding key for the Americans' 99-72 win on Saturday, Aug. 26.

    The Mall of Asia lights don't do justice in giving more shimmer for the stars who ascended on Manila to reclaim the title they lost in China four years ago. The crowd roared much like they saw Hollywood celebrities, rather than freaks of nature.

    The venue wasn't even a hostile place to be in for the Americans. They have the support of the fans, who dug deep in their pockets to see the NBA players in the flesh. But in a flash of surprise, they were huffing and puffing to get along with the Kiwis who were superbly fast, accurate, and at times more collected.

    Edwards, the energetic guard out of the Minnesota Timberwolves, committed a surprising turnover — a travelling violation — right in their first possession. In less than three minutes, Team USA was in a picture of pure disarray with Mikal Bridges and again, Edwards, called for ball handling and extra steps.

    Four minutes in, New Zealand's Finn Delany drilled a three-pointer from the right side to put the lead to 14-4. Not a sight to behold, not a start they wished for the Americans.

    Reuben Te Rangi, who, at 6-foot-6, was a good outside threat and a better slasher, came as the figure of offense for the Kiwis in that run.

    Yet, looking confused at first but never lacking the grit, Banchero, the Rookie of The Year, led the uprising that triggered a 10-2 turnaround. Banchero dunked it from an excellent drop pass inside, then Tyrese Haliburton tipped in the ball off Reaves' missed layup through two defenders.

    Suddenly, the Americans were up, 19-16, thanks to a Reaves' triple that all but summed up a frantic chase that was only spoiled by a layup at the buzzer by New Zealand's Taylor Britt.

    Te Rangi opened the second quarter with a three-pointer to momentarily take a 21-18 lead, and another with a clinical drive to the basket at the 7:16 mark that made it a 26-25 count in favor of the Kiwis.

    Then came the sense of pride for the Americans, who trooped to Manila as one of the youngest teams with an average age of 24.6. They will never back down, never against the Kiwis who are 24 rungs lower in the world rankings, and never in front of the adoring crowd who were merely mortals seeing the divine talents of basketball.

    "New Zealand was great. They were physical. We needed to feel that. But I love the way we responded," said Kerr, whose squad was given a scare but had the right adjustments against the determined Kiwis.

    "That's the message from Day 1. This is not the NBA. This is FIBA," he added.

    Banchero finished with 21 points and four rebounds, while Edwards, who had five turnovers, recovered from the early slump with an all-around effort of 14 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. Reaves, who was the crowd darling, chipped in 12 points and six assists.

    Te Rangi topscored for New Zealand with 15 points, while Delany (12), Shea Ili (12) and Yannick Wetzell (10) all had significant contributions in a defeat that spoke loudly of the Kiwis' talent and a warning to the rest of Asia and Oceania.