SHANGHAI: Coach Gregg Popovich admitted the United States remain a work in progress after they launched their bid for a third Basketball World Cup title in a row with an 88-67 victory over the Czech Republic on Sunday night.
France, Greece and Australia, all touted as possible threats to a depleted Team US, also triumphed on the second day of action in China.
San Antonio Spurs mastermind Popovich was forced to name an experimental roster with major names such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry all either injured or unavailable.
This is no “Dream Team” but Popovich still has a side full of NBA players and the reigning two-time champions had too much quality for the Czechs, who are ranked 24th in the world.
America is No. 1 and the favorite in China, but they failed to sparkle for long periods in Shanghai and Popovich admitted: “It was a very competitive game, physical, an opportunity to learn a lot… an opportunity to get better.
“That’s how we look at each of these games, to try to be the best team that we can be — and we’ve got a ways to go, but we are willing.”
In the absence of James and the rest, much was expected of Boston Celtics All-Star Kemba Walker, who scored 13 points and had a team-leading four assists.
Donovan Mitchell, a guard with the Utah Jazz, led the US with 16 points.
Popovich said that international basketball is different from the NBA and the US team is still getting to know each other.
“We are going to try to execute better and better as time goes on, but defensively we’ve got to put our money there,” said the 70-year-old.
“All in all, it’s getting better.”
In the same group, Turkey — prime challengers to the USA in the first round — defeated Japan 86-67.
Greece, who boast “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s MVP for the 2018-19 season, were easy 85-60 winners over Montenegro.
But France were made to sweat, squeezing past old rivals Germany 78-74.
Australia drew first blood in the so-called “Group of Death” with a nail-biting 108-92 victory over Canada.
Cleveland Cavaliers’ Matthew Dellavedova was key for the Boomers, leading them with 24 points after Canada had battled back from a 12-point half-time deficit to lead going into the fourth quarter.
Andrej Lemanis, Australia’s coach, called victory in their opener “a big one for us.”
Australia, who showcased their title credentials by stunning the Americans in a pre-tournament warm-up, began their title bid in Dongguan against a Canada side led by NBA champion coach Nick Nurse but missing many of their biggest names.
In a highly competitive Group H also containing Lithuania and Senegal, Australia led 52-40 at half-time, only for Canada to battle back before running out of gas.
Andrew Bogut, Australia’s veteran center, was booed by the locals seemingly because of a barbed tweet about Chinese swimmer Sun Yang.