US admire Tall Blacks, but big task still at hand
MARC HINTON IN BILBAO
The best hoops team on the planet loves the haka and respects the heck out of the Tall Blacks.
At a time when New Zealand's finest can use all the warm fuzzies they can get, that's something.
That was the upshot out of yesterday's entertaining but predictable 98-71 victory by the USA over the Tall Blacks, plunging them to dormie 0-3 and requiring the New Zealanders to finish with back to back wins to have any shot at a spot in the knockout rounds.
It was easily the Tall Blacks' best performance against the USA on the world stage - they'd lost previously by 46 and 48 points respectively - and both before the game and after it the Americans made it clear they had some healthy respect for the plucky little team from down under.
Firstly they, with their multi-million dollar salaries and runaway egos, became the first team at this event to actually stand and face the haka, a la protocol. Turned out coach Mike Krzyzewski had done his homework.
''We understood,'' said the coaching legend known simply as Coach K. ''I talked to Kirk [Penney] before the game. We already knew it was out of respect. They probably should send out a sheet to let people know that.
''I said we do respect that. We were actually going to shake hands with them after because we knew that was a really neat thing to do. It's part of their tradition and we admire that.''
Later Coach K cut short an off-beat question from one reporter about a potential American haka.
''We don't answer questions like that,'' he glared. ''That's disrespectful of their tradition. That's like us making fun of them, and we're not going to do that.''
Krzyzewski also paid credit to the tricky New Zealand offence which he said made them a problematic opponent. And at times it showed for the Americans who were not always their fluent selves.
''That's a really good offence New Zealand runs - it's very difficult to defend with big guys because everybody is away from the basket. We beat a team that really executes well and plays hard every second that they're out there.''
It was also a special game for any number of the Tall Blacks.
BJ Anthony's father (NBL legend Benny) is American and though he says he's a true-blue Kiwi it was a game that meant a lot to him. He showed it with an aggressive team-leading 11-point haul.
''I talked to my Dad before the game and he said I haven't been putting up enough shots. I really took that on board and tried to get after it a bit more.
''The fact that Dad is from America, it definitely means a lot. They have a different style, and he wants me to play a little more like that - and I know what he means. I gave that a shot tonight.''
Veteran naturalised American Casey Frank also admitted it was ''awesome'' to go up against his home country.
''It was nice to get a couple of dunks on the connection with Lindsay [Tait], turn it back to the old school. At times it felt a little bit like the freshmen playing with the seniors, but it was pretty cool.
''We fought the whole day, we kept on fighting, and some of the guys got their strokes back and hopefully we can carry that on.''
Young 'un Tai Webster (another son of an American), who is about to be a sophomore at Nebraska, couldn't wipe the smile off his face afterwards.
''We're just this little country down the bottom of the world, and to go at them and show them what we're made of, I thought we did a good job fighting to the end,'' he said.
''I'm buzzing. It was a privilege just to step out there with some of the best players in the world and test yourself, see if you can go at them, see if you can guard them.''
Remember this is still a very, very good US team, even without KD and LeBron. Look up Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, James Harden, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried.
These guys are studs. The group's combined salary this season is $US111 million.
And for a half, at least, the Tall Blacks pretty much gave as good as they got.
Marc Hinton travelled to the World Cup with assistance from Basketball NZ.
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