The USA Basketball Men’s National Team wasted no time in starting what it hopes will be another lengthy winning streak, defeating Canada 84-68 in a scrappy contest in front of 15,155 fans at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney on Monday night.
Forward Jaylen Brown scored a team-high 19 points as the U.S. bounced back from its first loss since 2006 behind a renewed focus on defense.
“Tonight was another good lesson for them to realize what the mindset has to be going into these games, how physical they are, how you have to sustain the energy for 40 minutes,” U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich said. “It’s coming along, but there’s a lot of improvement we can make, and that’s a good thing. I think we’ve got good potential there to continue to execute better than we are now. We competed, that wasn’t a problem, but execution takes time.”
The U.S. held Canada to just 32% shooting for the game, allowing only nine points in the first quarter.
“I think today was a good start in the right direction,” Brown said. “That’s where we’re going to hang our hat, that defensive intensity and pressure, so it was good to see it tonight.”
Brown was a standout on both sides of the court, ratcheting up a defense that lacked intensity in the team’s loss to Australia on Saturday.
“Jaylen is a hard-nosed player. He understands what has to be done,” Popovich said. “He doesn’t care about anything except playing with his teammates, winning, playing aggressively all the time, and he’s consistent in that regard, he does it all the time.”
After a slow start and poor outside shooting, the two-time reigning World Cup champs upped the tempo and attacked the basket.
“We created some turnovers and we had a little bit better pace off of rebounds and that’s the way we have to play,” Popovich said. “We have to have a good pace. If we walk it up, we’re not taking advantage of our athleticism.”
Brown scored eight points in a second quarter that saw Canada draw within five with 2:05 to go. But that was as close as the game would get. The U.S ended the half on an 11-1 run, punctuated with guard Donovan Mitchell’s emphatic alley-oop finish, bringing the crowd to its feet as time expired and pushing the lead to 46-31.
The second half got off to rugged start, with both teams combining to score just six points in the first three minutes of the third quarter. Canada refused to let the game get out of reach, but the U.S. would not let its northern neighbors cut the lead to single digits.
The fourth quarter played out in a similar fashion, before two Turner dunks pushed the U.S. lead past 20. The Americans grew their advantage to 23 with 1:34 left, as the boisterous crowd pleaded with Popovich to put in fan-favorite Brook Lopez. The coach succumbed with 1:13 to go, though the Milwaukee Bucks center was unable to get a shot off before the buzzer sounded.
Center Myles Turner was an intimidating presence around the rim, tallying the game’s only double-double with 10 points and 15 rebounds.
“We’re going to need him, we’re going to lean on him a lot,” Brown said. “We’ve got to help him out by helping him get those rebounds and finding him for some easy ones so he can get going. He’s going to be big for this tournament.”
Guards Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell, who scored the first five points of the game, each chipped in with 12 points.
Canadian forward Kyle Wiltjer scored a game-high 21 points. Center Khem Birch added 13, with the two players accounting for half their side’s scoring.
The win brings a conclusion to a four-game exhibition slate that saw the U.S. defeat Spain (90-81), split two games with Australia (102-86 and 94-98) and defeat Canada.
After a rest day on Aug. 27 and practice on Aug. 28, the USA will depart Sydney for Shanghai, China, where it will first play Czech Republic at 8:30 a.m. EDT on Sept. 1, followed by Turkey at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 3 and Japan at 8:30 a.m. EDT on Sept. 5.
Following three preliminary round games for each team, the top two teams from each preliminary round group advance to second round groups and will play two more games. The top two teams from each of the four second round groups earn a berth into the quarterfinals on Sept. 10 or 11.
"There is a lot of room to improve I think for this team, especially offensively," said Brown. "Defensively, we came out with the right mindset, and that’s half the battle, more than half the battle, having the right mindset. Now, we got to execute. Now, we got to take care of the ball. We got to rebound and play unselfishly, and we’ll be pretty good.
The final 12-man roster for the tournament includes Monday’s starting five -Walker, Turner, Jayson Tatum, Mitchell and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Harrison Barnes
plus Brown, Joe Harris, Lopez, Khris Middleton, Mason Plumlee, Marcus Smart and Derrick White. The U.S. has won the last two World Cups and five overall. If Team USA finishes the tournament as one of the top two teams from the Americas, it will qualify directly to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce and Villanova University head coach Jay Wright are serving as USA assistant coaches.
Alex Monnig is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.