Tall Blacks no match for USA's NBA superstars
It depends on your definition of respectable.
The Tall Blacks got thumped, as expected, here in Bilbao on Wednesday in their Group C Fiba World Cup matchup against gold medal favourites the USA to fall to 0-3 for the tournament.
But all things considered it could have been a lot worse than the 98-71 final scoreline that sent the loud contingent of Kiwi fans in the Bizkaia Arena away happy.
Put it this way, if the Americans get this close to the All Blacks in November at Soldier Field in Chicago they'll probably wear out their palms high fiving each other.
This was a little one-sided and pretty comfortable for the Americans who were too big, too strong and most definitely too quick for their outmatched opponents. But it wasn't ugly, those gallant New Zealanders stayed with it all the way and it had moments of genuine competitiveness.
Like the third quarter, which the Tall Blacks actually won 19-18 as they forced their zillion-dollar opponents into six turnovers and six-of-18 shooting. The New Zealanders actually scored seven of the last eight field goals in the period.
Like the pre-game haka by the Tall Blacks where finally a team faced it like you're meant to. It took the team with the combined salary of US$111 million, who stay in their own hotel, and travel in their own jets, to show the modicum of class required of a challenge like our good old haka.
It was the most competitive the Tall Blacks have been against the US in tournament play, easily surpassing the 46 points they were thrashed by in 2000 and the 48 they lost by in 2002.
Of course at times this was still a mismatch. Anthony Davis had a field day in the key en route to a game-high 21 points and nine rebounds, the Manimal, Kenneth Faried, had his way in the muscle and hustle areas with 15 points and 11 boards, and those slick guards Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Klay Thompson and James Harden all did their damage.
But the Kiwis stuck at it, when at 22 down at the half it could easily have got ugly. BJ Anthony slipped into attack mode to top score with 11 points, while Corey Webster, Everard Bartlett, Isaac Fotu, Tai Webster and Mika Vukona all had moments when they were able to breathe the rare air of the basketball gods.
"It was in a way an exhibition game," said Tall Blacks coach Nednad Vucinic afterwards. "They were a much stronger team. We always had a chance, but obviously when we fell behind in the first half by 20 points the game was over.
"We fought to the end. I was happy with that, but my mind has been more on why we lost against Dominican Republic and how we're going to beat Ukraine."
Tall Black shooting guard Kirk Penney, the only member of the team to have set foot on an NBA floor, felt the game had its positives ahead of their pair of sudden-death games looming.
"It was a wonderful chance for everyone to play. We wanted to fight to the end, and the guys on the court did and we were making runs until the last minute. That's all we can ask because the true challenge of this tournament as it stands right now starts tomorrow. That's the mindset we have leaving the gym today."
The Tall Blacks committed 22 turnovers and gave up 28 fast-break points, but they will take plenty of confidence from their competitiveness into those next two games against the Ukraine and Finland.
It suddenly gets deadly serious but the level will get easier, and it just could be the Kiwis enter those games with a spring in their steps. They'll need to.
The first half was respectable enough for the Tall Blacks who played with plenty of aggression and freedom, but still found themselves trailing by 22 points (57-35) at the major break after committing 12 turnovers against the swarming American defence.
The New Zealanders had nine scorers, led by a half-dozen points apiece to Cory Webster and Bartlett, but it was their inability to contain the myriad of threats in the opposition that saw them quickly fall behind.
Active big men Faried and Davis led the USA scoring with 11 points each, while Steph Curry (10 points) showed a welcome return to the hot shooting form we associate with him whenever he sets foot on a basketball court.
The Americans had eight steals - most off the New Zealand dribble - and won points off turnovers 10-3 and fast-break points 16-5. Casey Frank did throw down a first-half dunk that he'll be telling anyone who will listen about for years to come.
Most expected a USA romp after halftime, but the superstars won the last two quarters 41-36. Moral victory for the Kiwis.
Most important of all from a New Zealand perspective nobody played more than 20 minutes. The ammo remains in the chamber for two games that will define this side.
USA 98 (Anthony Davis 21, Kenneth Faried 15, James Harden 13, Steph Curry 12, Klay Thompson 12, Kyrie Irving 10) Tall Blacks 71 (BJ Anthony 11). 1Q: 27-20, HT: 57-35, 3Q: 75-54
Marc Hinton travelled to the World Cup with assistance from Basketball NZ