MANILA, Philippines — Their booming sound ricocheted from Section 419 atop Mall of Asia Arena on Monday. The Pelargoi, known as the official fan club of the Greek men’s national team, are always pounding a 51 x 31 centimeter drum. It has traveled everywhere from Venezuela to China, thumping along with the bounce of FIBA’s orange-and-white basketball, as the dedicated Pelargoi follow its beloved team across the globe — even when Giannis Antetokounmpo misses the World Cup due to offseason knee surgery.
Over two dozen Greek diehards have tracked the national team for two decades, draping their blue-and-white flag over stadium awnings just as they did against head coach Steve Kerr’s mighty Team USA squad. Even more have flocked to Manila. And Greece’s offense kept pace with its rhythmic fanbase at the onset, running high pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll with nationalized point guard Thomas Walkup and gargantuan 7-foot-2 center Georgios Papagiannis to claim an early 9-8 advantage over the heavily favored Americans.
Yet just like against New Zealand before it, Team USA’s reserve unit, spearheaded by the dazzling two-guard performance of Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves, paved some necessary breathing room, this time in the game’s second quarter, not waiting until the third frame. The Americans would run away with a 109-81 victory, thanks to a collective effort from the top to the bottom of the roster.
“Our thought process every game is to wear the opponent down,” Kerr said. “We’re 12 deep on our roster. We’re just trying to stay solid on every possession and really put pressure on the opponent, and we needed to do that tonight because Greece played very well.”
The starters shook off their slow start against the Tall Blacks on Saturday. There was no need to give any player an early yank toward the bench Monday, to the point Kerr essentially opted for a full five-in, five-off substitution against the Greeks late in the opening period. After leaving several runners short on Saturday, captain Jalen Brunson repeatedly put his head down and plowed into Walkup, bumping and twisting his way into artful finishes like he was staving off playoff elimination against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden.
“It starts with just my mindset, my concentration. Shots close to the rim are what I excel at, and it’s what I’ve always worked on since I was two,” said Brunson, who finished with 13 points and two assists. “When I miss stuff like that, it just goes back to mechanics, just goes back to concentration. I’m just reading how the defense is playing and just attacking what I see.”
Jaren Jackson Jr. was a force as well, even against the larger Papagiannis, who led all scorers with 17. Jackson sent the lively crowd into a frenzy with consecutive blocks against Thanasis Antetokounmpo late in the first quarter. The energetic Greek forward first powered his way past slender American swingman Brandon Ingram on the left block, only for Jackson to swoop in for a stifling swat. Then after a USA turnover, there was Antetokounmpo hurtling in the frontcourt.
“I saw he was way in front of me. I thought he was closer to me, and I had to, like, take off running and just make a play. I kinda jumped wild and he jumped wild too,” Jackson said. But the Grizzlies’ All-Star and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who fouled out of Team USA’s opening game of the tournament, met force with force for a second straight stop. “I know he was trying to dunk on me,” Jackson said with a smile.
The Americans’ obvious advantage through two games of World Cup play remains their superior depth. With Haliburton peppering the ball like a quarterback, to use Kerr’s own analogy from Sunday’s practice, and Reaves attacking the gaps with his flashy ball-handling, the Greeks had no match for the Americans. Reaves flushed another emphatic open-court dunk and knifed through the defense with his ever-impressive change-of-pace dribbles.
“Our second unit, we just try to watch the game and see what we can bring different,” Haliburton said. “When you wear this uniform, when you play for Team USA, it’s so much bigger than you. You gotta understand that, and understand the legends that came off the bench before us.”
“They’re not a real second unit,” Jackson added. “They’re a first unit in disguise.”
Reaves lead the Americans with 15 points off the bench. Haliburton added nine of his own, with three helpers, including a terrific no-look dime to Paolo Banchero, faking a pass to Cam Johnson in the left corner before slinging a perfect bounce to Team USA’s backup center.
Josh Hart, the New York Knicks’ energizer bunny, corralled 11 rebounds, his magnetic hands summoning five off the offensive glass as if by some type of attracting pull.
“At one point, [Team USA assistant Erik Spoelstra] turned to me and said, ‘Some people get 50-50 balls,’” Kerr told reporters. “‘He gets the 30-70 balls.’”
The Americans draw Jordan, led by former NBA first-round pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, on Wednesday in their final game of this opening group phase. With a shaved head, jersey No. 24 and a sweatband on his right forearm, Hollis-Jefferson has been performing a self-proclaimed Kobe Bryant impression this tournament. He finished with a World Cup-high 39 points in Jordan’s 95-87 loss to New Zealand on Monday afternoon, including a wild four-point play to send the game into overtime with 10 seconds remaining.
But this victory against Greece already ensures Team USA will advance beyond the first phase, starting 2-0 in Group C, where the Jordanians are so far winless in this four-team bunch.