Austin Reaves leads way as U.S. wins FIBA World Cup opener

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Sunday, August 27, 2023

MANILA, Philippines -- As Team USA has gone around the planet over the past month, it has become clear that Austin Reaves, riding his Los Angeles Lakers popularity, is adored, as he is cheered from the moment he steps on every court.

But his turn on this roster has also been a celebration of his emerging stardom for his play. He took another step in that direction Saturday night as he was a driving force in Team USA's 99-72 win over New Zealand to open the FIBA World Cup.

Reaves' all-around production, spirit and poise were difference-makers as he and some fellow bench players pulled the Americans out of an early malaise in a game that will have to be a building block if the team is to keep its status as a favorite.

He finished with 12 points, 6 assists and 3 steals, but those numbers don't quite portray his impact. This one, however, does: plus-19. That was his plus/minus as his effect on the flow of the game was profound.

The sellout crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena delighted in it, exploding with glee when Reaves made his "ice in my veins" pose after a 3-pointer.

"I was one of those kids watching the World Cup [and] the Olympics, so every day I wake up and cherish those moments," Reaves said. "I'm from a super small town, and not a lot of people expected me to be here representing our country. So for the [crowds] to accept me the way that they accept me, it means a lot to me."

Bench teammates Tyrese Haliburton and Paolo Banchero deserve special praise as well. Haliburton was plus-13 with 10 points, and Banchero, who made his first six shots and finished with 21 points, was plus-22. Both saved an unimpressive collective showing by the Team USA starters.

Banchero made two big 3-pointers in the third quarter as part of a run that decided the game. His play at backup center and his scoring made a significant difference in what was his biggest stage since being picked No. 1 by the Orlando Magic last year.

"I think those are my first 3s I've hit since I've been playing with the team," Banchero said. "We pride ourselves on, when we come in, pushing the pace, and if we're starting flat, we got to be able to pick it up."

Team USA's pregame routine was out of sync. The players came onto the floor to warm up, and instead of getting into a routine, they had to watch a pregame dance ceremony, pose for a team photo and then respectfully watch as New Zealand's squad performed its traditional haka dance.

The Americans had been briefed that all this would be happening as part of the first-game formalities, but it wasn't clear whether they knew it would come out of their warmup clock time.

Then something unplanned happened. An imposter, dressed in what looked like a replica New Zealand black-and-white uniform, gained access to the floor. It was a social media influencer known for pulling pranks who slipped past security before being taken off the court.

"We can't use that as an excuse. We just got to be prepared," Haliburton said. "We have to be ready, prepared going into the games and respect every opponent."

New Zealand was out on the floor long before the U.S. and it showed. The Americans started on their heels. The Kiwis jumped out to a 10-point first-quarter lead as the U.S. had five misses and four turnovers in its first 11 possessions.

Anthony Edwards, who was dominant in the pre-World Cup warmup games, was shaky as he committed four first-half turnovers. Twice he simply dribbled off his foot, illustrating how out of sorts he was.

But Edwards wasn't alone. Most of the Team USA starters who had excelled over the past three weeks were bothered by the more aggressive New Zealand team. The All Blacks, as they are known, used the standard FIBA style against favorites by expending huge energy on defensive pressure and trying to throw themselves in front of every American dribbler to draw charges.

New Zealand fouled a lot, made frequent subs and fired up 3-pointers, which has been its style for some time. Within a few minutes, U.S. coach Steve Kerr had pulled all his starters with the exception of Mikal Bridges as he searched for someone who had some poise.

That's when Reaves and Haliburton entered the scene. Just like a week ago, when their playmaking and energy were the catalyst in a 16-point comeback against Germany in what proved to be a telling friendly, they powered the turnaround in this game.

"New Zealand was great. They came out and were very physical right away and took it to us, and we need to feel that because that's what these games are going be like," Kerr said. "But I love the way we responded."

Reaves offers something so valuable in FIBA play: effective defense without fouling. That's always an attractive trait in basketball, but with FIBA referees and just five fouls for disqualification, it is magnified. Meanwhile, as he showed during his breakout season with the Lakers, Reaves is also an expert at drawing fouls, and that combo is golden in the World Cup setting.

He also brings a blend of creating shots while looking for his own that belies his relative lack of experience. He plays under control despite being under pressure. That is how he played Saturday night, swinging the game with his game. He had 10 points, 5 assists and a steal in the first half.

Edwards regained some of his footing as the game wore on and was able to use his power to get to the foul line as he assembled 14 points. Center Jaren Jackson Jr.had a good second half and finished with 12 points.

But the U.S. will need more steady play from its front line starting Monday against Greece.

"We just came out lackadaisical," Edwards said. "You got to come out with a little more energy and ready to go."

New Zealand was led by 15 points from Reuben Te Rangi.

Related Video