The U.S. men’s basketball team figured that it would eventually cross paths with Giannis Antetokounmpo at this World Cup.
And the Americans were right.
For the first time, a reigning NBA MVP will play against the U.S. on a major international stage. Antetokounmpo and Greece (2-1) will be the opponent when the U.S. (3-0) opens second-round play on Saturday night, in what’s essentially a must-win game for the Greeks in their quest to reach next week’s quarterfinals.
“Oh, he’s going to come out to kill us. There’s no question,” said U.S. center Brook Lopez, Antetokounmpo’s teammate with the Milwaukee Bucks. “He’ll try to tear our heads off. I wouldn’t expect anything otherwise.”
Greece has already survived one must-win game in this World Cup, beating New Zealand 103-97 on Thursday night to clinch the 16th and final available spot in the second round. Had they lost, the Greeks were going to the classification round and relegated to no better than a 17th-place finish in the 32 team tournament.
Instead, they get the U.S. in a game that’s sure to command major attention.
“For us, we go as far as Giannis goes,” Greece‘s Nick Calathes said. “Not just offensively because offensively he can score, he can pass. But defensively, he’s a big impact for us. We’ll be ready to go. We’re not afraid of anybody. Obviously, USA is the best team in the tournament right now so we’ll be prepared and have the right mindset coming in.”
All second-round teams play two games before the quarterfinal field is set. The U.S. will play Brazil in the second-round finale Monday, while Greece will play the Czech Republic.
There is no mystery about what this event means to Antetokounmpo.
“To represent my country, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Antetokounmpo said. “You really cannot explain it. But one thing I’ll say is when you play for the national team, you don’t only play for yourself. You represent every single Greek person.”
He said in the weeks leading up to the tournament that he would trade the MVP award for the World Cup crown.
If only it were that easy. Greece will face a U.S. team that is coming off a 53-point romp against Japan to finish first-round play.
“Our opinion has been all along that all these players from overseas that play in the NBA are obviously good players or they wouldn’t be there, and Giannis is pretty special as far as good players are concerned,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “But when they play for their countries, we like to say that they become superheroes.”
Greece will probably need Antetokounmpo to find his superhero cape if this upset is going to happen.
He’s averaged 15.7 points so far in three games in China, shooting 50 percent from the floor and only 17 percent from 3-point range. The Greeks have been careful with his minutes and his best game of the World Cup, by far, was Thursday when he logged 30 minutes and scored 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out six assists.
Greece coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos likely won’t be cautious with his star’s minutes Saturday.
“Giannis is the superstar of the team and everybody knows what he can do,” Skourtopoulos said.
The Americans struggled at times in their opener against the Czech Republic, nearly lost to Turkey in their second game and arrived in China last week a few days removed from a loss in Australia. All that has led to plenty of questions about their vulnerability.
Skourtopoulos isn’t buying that notion.
“The USA team, of course, even with a lot of stars missed, the roster is great,” Skourtopoulos said. “The coaching staff is more than great. It’s a very good team and we’ll have to be 100 percent ready if we want to go against them and take the victory against this great team.”
There’s a very distinct familiarity for Lopez and U.S. wing Khris Middleton, since they see Antetokounmpo in Bucks practice every day during the NBA season. And three members of the Boston Celtics who are on the U.S. roster — Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart — faced Antetokounmpo in the second round of last season’s playoffs, the Bucks winning in five games.
Brown is eager for Saturday.
“Looking forward to it,” Brown said.
Middleton said he hasn’t done any chatting with Antetokounmpo since the World Cup started. And he cautioned that focusing too much on Antetokounmpo could be problematic for the Americans.
“He is the MVP, but at the same time they do have other great players on that team,” Middleton said. “They have Calathes, they have a couple bigs, couple shooters. So it’s not just all about Giannis. He’s a smart player who knows how to use his teammates. We can’t just focus on him.”
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