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 Croatian 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.