LAS VEGAS — Team USA completed its five-day training camp ahead of the FIBA World Cup with a 117-74 thrashing of Puerto Rico on Monday night in Las Vegas, leaving coach Steve Kerr thrilled with the work his team has put in as it begins what it hopes is a six-week quest culminating in a gold medal next month in the Philippines.
“It’s a great night for us,” Kerr said after winning his first game as head coach of the senior national team. “I think the guys have really picked up what we’re trying to install at both ends and we’re slowly but surely getting used to the FIBA rules and interpretations — coaches included.
“It’s all part of the process of getting accustomed to what we’re gonna be facing.”
A sluggish performance in the first half — Puerto Rico opened up an early 6-2 lead in the opening minutes and Team USA only led 50-43 at halftime — gave way to a frenetic second-half performance, one that saw the far bigger, longer and more athletic American team leverage those advantages to blow the game open.
Team USA outscored Puerto Rico 34-18 in the third quarter and 33-13 in the fourth, forcing 18 turnovers that became 31 points, allowing the Americans to get out and score in transition at will and take control of the proceedings.
“It took us a while to get going, but when we’re playing the defensive side of the ball and getting stops and turnovers and running, it’s pretty fun for us,” said Jalen Brunson, who started at point guard and finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds in 22 minutes. “So we just got to try to continue to do that. Just not worry about offense at all, and we’ll be all right.”
While Kerr spent several days declining to discuss his starting five, there were no surprises when the starters were unveiled shortly before tip-off. Brunson, the player Kerr has repeatedly labeled the team’s leader, was at the point, alongside Anthony Edwards, Mikal Bridges, Brandon Ingram and Jaren Jackson Jr.
That was the same group that dominated the scrimmages versus the Select Team on Saturday — which is why Kerr said he ultimately chose to go with it. And, despite the slow start, it showed plenty of flashes of why it can be a potent one for Team USA moving forward.
“I think it worked well,” Ingram said. “We got two scorers on the wing, we got a point guard that gets everything organized, we got [Jaren], the defensive player of the year, you got Mikal who moves everywhere and finds open spots … it’s a good dynamic.”
There was no one who was more dynamic than the always effervescent Edwards, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft who is fresh off signing a maximum contract extension for north of $200 million with the Minnesota Timberwolves last month. Edwards not only finished tied with Cameron Johnson for the team lead with 15 points on 7-for-13 shooting, but he had four assists and — most importantly — four steals, repeatedly using his combination of length, strength and speed to harass Puerto Rico’s perimeter players into mistakes.
“Just trying to anticipate where the offense was going,” Edwards said of his defensive approach with a smile. “Just using my defensive skills that God blessed me with.”
“Anthony was great,” Kerr said. “He fits the FIBA game really well because of his physicality at both ends. He can get through contact. They allow a lot of contact on drives, so he can get through that contact with his strength and then using that same strength defensively, body people up and, and keep them from penetrating.
“So I thought he was great, but I thought the whole team really played well.”
There were plenty of other positives to take away from the night. Team USA won by 43 in a game that it shot 6-for-27 from 3-point range. Austin Reaves continued to make an impact, carrying over his strong play from training camp, while he and Tyrese Haliburton combined to have 16 assists to just two turnovers in what has the chance to be an incredibly dangerous second unit — one that is going to play exceedingly fast.
“I think it’s really just playing basketball,” Reaves said. “You got guys like him and he knows how to play the game. It makes it a lot easier for you. So it’s really just about making the right play.”
Jackson also continued his strong play from training camp over the weekend, finishing with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks, but also committed three quick fouls — something that will be a recurring theme for a thin Team USA group and for a player that is often a foul magnet in NBA games.
Reigning Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero got significant minutes at backup center, at times playing over Bobby Portis behind Jackson — something Kerr said could continue because of his ability to handle the ball and push it in transition.
Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler got in for a handful of fourth-quarter minutes, while Josh Hart didn’t play at all. Team USA cited his not playing as due to “rest,” though Hart is eligible to sign a four-year contract extension with the New York Knicks beginning Thursday.