SHENZHEN, China -- Before each game at the FIBA World Cup, the entire teams are announced to the crowd, culminating with the head coach. Without fail as Team USA has progressed from Shanghai and now to Southern China, Gregg Popovich has gotten the loudest ovation.
Popovich, for better or worse, is maybe the biggest American star here, even if he rejects the concept out of hand. But frankly, the U.S. needs him to be a star on occasion, every bit as much as they need those turns from Kemba Walker or Donovan Mitchell.
Popovich and his coaching staff put in a star performance Saturday night in Team USA's 69-53 win over Greece. This was not an attractive game, but now more than a month into watching this group, it's clear that a world title is going to come ugly if it comes at all. Popovich is going to have to earn it as much as anyone.
The defensive game plan the Americans had ready for Giannis Antetokounmpo was multifaceted and complete, getting them over a dangerous hurdle. It was a team effort, from the scouting staff led by Jeff Van Gundy to assistant coach Steve Kerr working with players to explain their roles to Popovich, poring in hours between games in meetings and watching film.
Antetokounmpo had 15 points and 13 rebounds and made 7-of-11 shots, but the truth was he was defanged to the point where the Greeks waved the white flag and pulled their star in the fourth quarter to save energy. As expected, he exploded out of the gate with intensity as he scored on a spin move and nailed a 3-pointer on the game's first two possessions. But methodically he was taken out of the game and so was his team.
"Everything is always a compilation of experiences. Obviously we've seen him play, and he's a great player," Popovich said. "It's a little bit of everything. Overall we did a good job of being active."
Popovich's long-term plans for dealing with the current Most Valuable Player were derailed a bit when Jayson Tatum went down with an ankle injury earlier this week. After consulting with the coaches, when it came time for a team meeting Friday afternoon Popovich told Joe Harris that he was going to open the game defending Antetokounmpo.
Then Friday night, Harris' phone rang.
"Pop called me and told me I just want you sleep a little easier," Harris said, "and he told me we're going to have Harrison (Barnes) guard him." The coach was tinkering into the night. He's working it, holding rounds of meetings with a collection of basketball intelligence he's brought with him to China. In addition to Kerr and Van Gundy, his official staff includes Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce and Villanova head coach Jay Wright. His unofficial staff includes Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Ime Udoka, San Antonio Spurs coaches Chip Engelland and Will Hardy, longtime college and NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo and others.
What it produced was a strategy that hemmed in Antetokounmpo. Barnes started on him as planned but Khris Middleton, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart soon followed in quick succession. Smart was especially effective denying Antetokounmpo position in the post, fighting to deny entry passes. There were even possessions when big man Mason Plumlee got the assignment, trying to keep the Greeks off balance.
"Pop wanted to throw a bunch of different looks at him," Brown said, "Keep him thinking."
Popovich played small at times, not playing Brook Lopez at all, so that he could switch pick-and-rolls no matter who Antetokounmpo wanted to run a two-man game with. He rotated players in from the weak side to bring double-teams and sometimes even triple-teams. And when Antetokounmpo played on the perimeter, the defense shaded toward him with three players shadowing him. "We showed a crowd every time he touched it," Smart said. "We want to make it hard for him, and we did."
The Americans picked which Greek players to give space, their scouting identifying some weak spots on Greece's roster. Certainly it was possible that one or two of Greece's players could've had unexpected hot shooting nights, but Popovich and his staff had worked the percentages and they told the players exactly who they wanted to funnel the ball toward.
"Everyone knows Giannis obviously, you play against him in the NBA," Harris said. "But you have to be real familiar with everyone else, too. That's why the scout (from the coaches) was so thorough."
Other than Antetokounmpo, the rest of the Greece team shot just 25%. The double-teams allowed some open 3-pointers, but the Greeks didn't make them, going just 7-of-27.
Indeed, it was the players who executed the plan, and while Antetokounmpo was motivated, the Americans wanted to make a statement too. Especially Boston Celtics Smart and Brown, who'd been dominated by Antetokounmpo while wearing a Milwaukee Bucks jersey in the playoffs in May.
But it's been Popovich who has steadily sold the need for defensive intensity to the group over the past several weeks, building that habit up and arming them with a game plan that puts them in a position to be successful.
It's only halfway toward the journey, the U.S. is 4-0 in the World Cup but has four more left. If Popovich and his staff keep up this batting average, he'll have done this often thankless job.
"It was a good test of us, it helped us get better," Popovich said. "That's what we're looking for."