SHENZHEN, China — When playing in an international tournament, much of the challenge for Team USA is dealing with all the foreign aspects. From location to opposition to the rules, it’s as big of an opponent as anything at the World Cup in China.
But now it’s the familiar that is the concern.
Oh, does Team USA know their next opponent well. Two of his Milwaukee Bucks teammates are on the roster. Three Boston Celtics now wearing the flag were vanquished by him during the playoffs just a couple months ago. The rest of the American players have had to hear for weeks that they don’t have the star power of other teams like his.
Saturday’s World Cup second-round game against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece (ESPN+, 8:30 a.m. ET) presents one of the most unique challenges Team USA has faced in modern times. There is just no one in the world like him, and their awareness of it only makes it more daunting.
“This is a special situation,” said Team USA center Brook Lopez, who won 60 games alongside Antetokounmpo last season. “This is different from Team USA’s past.”
Team Brazil coach Aleksandar Petrovic said he plotted for six months how he was going to defend Antetokounmpo. It was a surprise game plan as he used Alex Garcia, who is 39 years old and about 8 inches shorter, as primary defender with the task to be physical and knock Antetokounmpo out of his game. Antetokounmpo scored just 13 points, fouled out and Greece lost in overtime. Petrovic, the brother of late Serbian legend Drazen Petrovic, gloated about it afterward.
Team USA coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t gloat. But he’s likely been plotting his own Antetokounmpo strategy for weeks. Though it wasn’t assured until Thursday night, when looking at the brackets there seemed to be a strong likelihood that the U.S. would face Greece in this round.
Antetokounmpo hasn’t loved this experience so far and his team’s overall play has underwhelmed a bit. Officials in FIBA games often allow more contact than in the NBA and will never be accused of protecting star players, which Brazil smartly leveraged.
In fact, often it is the opposite: They allow the big names to be beat up more than they’d allow others. This has been a source of frustration for American big men for years; it was a contributing factor in Tim Duncan quitting the national team last decade.
On Tuesday, when he scored 24 points with 10 rebounds in a win over New Zealand to clinch a chance to face the U.S., Antetokounmpo played with anger. His jutting jaw and relentless basket attacks that made him the MVP were back, perhaps as a reaction to Brazil’s treatment of him and the importance of the game. Had the Greeks lost, they would have been out of the World Cup and in a precarious position in trying to qualify for next summer’s Olympics.
Greece has been playing Antetokounmpo at center a lot, which doesn’t happen in the NBA, mostly because this way he can easily attack the zone defenses that are common in the World Cup. Team USA doesn’t play zone, which may actually make Antetokounmpo more comfortable as he can go back to perimeter playmaking like he does for the Bucks.
“In the NBA you know each night the Os and Xs and what people are going to run and that sort of thing,” Popovich said. “But here every team has a different take on the way they want to play. It’s actually enjoyable and challenging as each team is a different artwork to be figured out.”
Jeff Van Gundy, who has done a lot of praising of Antetokounmpo as lead analyst for ABC and ESPN, has changed roles and is acting as head scout for Team USA currently. He’s been deeply studying Greece and deciphering what they might have saved for the Americans. And it does sound like the Greeks, who beat Team USA with a precision offensive game plan back in the 2006 World Cup, have been saving something up.
“The situation with Giannis, it’s a little bit complicated … you have to protect Giannis and his health. So you have to take care of the times he plays,” Greece coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos said. “Against the USA it’s good for him. He knows the mentality of the way they play. It’s not like the European teams with the FIBA regulation. So now is the time for him to increase playing time and increase everything during the game.”
Antetokounmpo has averaged only 25 minutes per game in three games thus far. But with the Greeks facing elimination if they lose, plus the value of a chance at a vulnerable American team, the expectation is that Antetokounmpo will leave it all on the floor Saturday. With the U.S. missing Jayson Tatum (ankle) and with Marcus Smart (quad) questionable, their defensive options have been limited.
“We go as far as Giannis goes. He’s a big impact for us,” said Greece guard Nick Calathes. “We’ll be ready to go, we’re not afraid of anybody. We’ll be prepared.”
One good sign for the Americans was the strong play of Jaylen Brown in Tuesday’s win over Japan. While Harrison Barnes and Giannis’ Bucks teammate Khris Middleton figure to be getting duty trying to deal with Antetokounmpo, Brown likely will be relied upon because he’s perhaps Team USA’s best option. Brown was part of the Celtics group that Antetokounmpo vanquished in the second round of last season’s playoffs, averaging 28 points and 11 rebounds.
Will that experience help or hurt Brown now that he’s got this chance at a measure of redemption?
“I guess we’ll see pretty soon,” Brown said. “I’m looking forward to it.”