Tall Blacks brush aside American "exhibition"
The fun part is over for the Tall Blacks at this Fiba World Cup - that much was clear as coach Nenad Vucinic and senior player Kirk Penney slipped into their game faces and quickly put the USA "exhibition" romp behind them.
Wednesday's gritty 98-71 defeat to the star-studded, aerially inclined USA side was easily New Zealand's best effort against the Americans on the world stage, but the relevance of it was quickly put into perspective by both Vucinic and Penney as they fixed their focus firmly on must-win games against the Ukraine and Finland.
To have any hope of making it to the knockout rounds in Barcelona, they've got to be tucked away.
"We were targeting the game tomorrow rather the game today because even the two points today would mean nothing if we lost the game tomorrow," Vucinic said.
"So we rotated players, nobody played more than 20 minutes, and from that perspective the task was achieved.
"But we know what we're facing tomorrow - we're facing a team in top form. They just beat Turkey and they beat the Dominican Republic, and we know we're underdogs the way we've played, especially in game two against Dominican Republic.
"Hopefully we're ready to turn the corner."
The Tall Blacks will have their work cut out against big and deadly shooting Ukraine outfit which on Wednesday toppled the Turks 64-58 for their second win of the pool round.
But that's where today's fast-paced alley-oop fest against the Americans might actually have been a good thing for the New Zealanders.
They shared the minutes evenly and everyone stuck to their task well, keeping the second half scoreline to just 41-36 in the Americans' favour.
Young men like BJ Anthony, Isaac Fotu, Everard Bartlett and the Webster brothers had their little moments where they lived with their millionaire opponents, and one not so young one, Mika Vukona, showed he does not look out of place in their company.
Maybe it was just the jolt of confidence this side needed after its sub-par effort against the Dominicans?
Vucinic was at least hopeful that his team took a positive step back in the right direction.
"If we'd won the game I don't think it would have been good, and if we'd lost by 70 points which was a possibility it wouldn't be good. But this is where it is.
"We're not as good as the US team, and we deservedly lost the game. We didn't contain their transition very well, but I'm not sure many teams can. Our thoughts are only about the next 48 hours."
Penney could definitely see upside as he stepped very much into a support role, playing just 19 minutes and going three-for-nine for six points and four rebounds.
"It's good everyone got to play and guys have got to run up and down the court, the minutes have been spread and everyone can take confidence. A couple of guys out there did a really good job for us and hopefully they can bring that confidence into the next two games."
Penney admitted the team had sold itself short so far. And was hurting because of it.
"I know we haven't [showed out best stuff] and that's been frustrating for all of us," he said.
"These next two games are going to be really hard, and we're going to have to battle and play a lot better than we've been playing because we played horrible against the Dominican Republic.
"We've got to put it all behind us right now and play the best basketball we've played all tour. It's unfortunate we've come to the big stage and haven't done it yet, but there's that saving grace we're still alive and have still got a chance."
You ask Penney if he feels the need to reinforce to his many young team-mates that it can still be done from 0-3, as the 2006 team did in Japan.
"I believe it can be done and I don't think any one of these guys thinks otherwise," Penney shot back. "I don't think there's a lot of reinforcement needed. Everyone believes, everyone knows what our task is and what our challenge is.
"It's very clear and it's come down to the last two games."
That's why today's game against the USA was almost an irrelevance. The Tall Blacks had already begun talking about the Ukraine, even beforehand. They were never going to cause the upset of the century, and they knew that.
But tomorrow they have to find the passion that was so patently lacking against the Dominicans. You have to think they can't win without some trademark fight.
Vucinic was asked if his men were aware of what was at stake.
"I'm pretty confident and they're going to hear it during the next 18 hours."
*Marc Hinton travelled to the World Cup with assistance from Basketball New Zealand*