In Manila, Philippines, the powerful drumbeats echoed from Section 419 of the Mall of Asia Arena on Monday. The Pelargoi, recognized as the official fan club of the Greek men’s national basketball team, maintained their rhythmic drumming, measuring 51 by 31 centimeters. Their unwavering dedication led them from places like Venezuela to China, their drums harmonizing with FIBA’s orange-and-white basketball, as committed Pelargoi followers tracked their cherished team across the globe—even in the absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo due to knee surgery.
For over two decades, more than twenty Greek enthusiasts have faithfully followed the national team, draping their blue-and-white flag over stadium awnings, just as they did when facing Steve Kerr’s formidable Team USA. A larger contingent of supporters gathered in Manila. The Greek team’s offense synchronized with the pulse of their devoted fans, initiating consecutive high pick-and-roll plays orchestrated by nationalized point guard Thomas Walkup and towering 7-foot-2 center Georgios Papagiannis. This strategy propelled them to an early 9-8 lead over the heavily favored American team.
However, reminiscent of their performance against New Zealand, Team USA’s bench players, led by the impressive guard pairing of Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves, established a vital lead during the game’s second quarter, without waiting until the third period. Their combined efforts led the Americans to a resounding 109-81 victory, showcasing strength across the entire roster.
“Our aim is to wear down our opponents every game,” Coach Kerr explained. “Our roster runs twelve players deep. We strive for consistent performance on every possession and apply pressure to the opposition, which was crucial tonight given Greece’s strong showing.”
In contrast to their sluggish start against the Tall Blacks on Saturday, the American starters were in full swing from the outset. No player required early substitution, and Kerr even opted for a complete five-player swap against the Greek team late in the first quarter. Captain Jalen Brunson, who struggled with missed shots on Saturday, attacked the basket relentlessly against Thomas Walkup, exhibiting determined finishes reminiscent of high-pressure playoff situations at Madison Square Garden.
“It all begins with my mindset and focus. I excel at close-range shots, a skill I’ve honed since a young age,” explained Brunson, who contributed 13 points and two assists. “When I miss shots like that, it boils down to mechanics and focus. I read the defense and adjust my attack accordingly.”
Jaren Jackson Jr. also made a significant impact, even when facing the taller Papagiannis, who led all scorers with 17 points. Jackson thrilled the animated crowd by delivering back-to-back blocks against Thanasis Antetokounmpo late in the first quarter. First, he denied Thanasis’ attempt against Brandon Ingram, then thwarted a subsequent dunk effort by Antetokounmpo.
“I noticed he was ahead of me. I thought he was closer, so I had to accelerate and make a play. I jumped somewhat recklessly, and he did the same,” Jackson explained. However, the Grizzlies’ standout and reigning Defensive Player of the Year met the challenge head-on for another impressive defensive stop. “I knew he was trying to dunk on me,” Jackson added with a smile.
The Americans’ clear advantage in the first two World Cup games has been their superior depth. Tyrese Haliburton’s precise passing, likened to a quarterback’s skill by Coach Kerr, along with Austin Reaves’ dynamic ball-handling, proved insurmountable for the Greek team. Reaves punctuated the game with a commanding open-court dunk and skillfully maneuvered through the defense with his impressive changes of pace.
“Our second unit aims to bring a different dynamic to the game,” Haliburton shared. “Playing for Team USA goes beyond individual significance. We must recognize that and honor the legends who preceded us off the bench.”
“They’re not simply a second unit,” Jackson chimed in. “They’re a concealed first unit.”
Reaves led the American team with 15 points off the bench, while Haliburton contributed nine points and three assists, including a remarkable no-look pass to Paolo Banchero—an expertly executed bounce pass to Team USA’s backup center, feinting a pass to Cam Johnson in the corner.
Josh Hart, the New York Knicks’ energizing force, secured 11 rebounds, showcasing his magnetism under the basket with five offensive rebounds that seemed to gravitate towards his hands.
“At one point, [Team USA assistant coach Erik Spoelstra] turned to me and said, ‘Some people get 50-50 balls,'” Kerr recounted to reporters. “‘He gets the 30-70 balls.'”
In their upcoming game, Team USA will face Jordan, led by former NBA first-round pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, in the final match of the opening group phase. With a shaved head, jersey No. 24, and a sweatband on his right forearm, Hollis-Jefferson has been channeling his inner Kobe Bryant during the tournament. Despite his efforts, Jordan fell to New Zealand with a World Cup-high 39 points, including a remarkable four-point play to force overtime with 10 seconds remaining.
However, this victory against Greece secures Team USA’s advancement to the next phase of the tournament. With a 2-0 record in Group C, they have outperformed the winless Jordanian team in this four-team group.