SHANGHAI – The result was anticipated. Nevertheless, the game left the Akatsuki Five with grief and a sigh.
The Japan men’s national team posted a third straight loss in the first round of the FIBA World Cup with a 98-45 pounding to reigning tournament and Olympic champion United States in its final Group E contest on Thursday night.
In the complete defeat, forward Yudai Baba was the lone bright spot for Japan (0-3), finishing with 18 points and three steals in 24 minutes.
Japan ace Rui Hachimura was much less effective than his previous games, including his team’s warm-up contests before the World Cup. He was held to four points on 2-for-8 shooting and grabbed four rebounds. Yuta Watanabe, a two-way contract player for the Memphis Grizzlies, added nine points.
“It certainly hurts us,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said of the way his squad was demolished after the game at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center. “(The U.S.) dominated the game from the first quarter, overwhelming us. We couldn’t bounce back from it and accumulated frustration in ourselves, which made it difficult for us to play our game.”
Team USA opened the game on a 13-0 run. And basically it kept widening its lead, putting on a show with its athleticism and skills. The Americans also intimidated Japan with physicality on the defensive end. Japan scored its first points on a pair of Watanabe free throws with 5:20 left in the first quarter.
The United States led 56-23 at halftime and extended its advantage to 84-31 by the end of the third quarter.
But Baba, who competed in the NBA Summer League this summer, gave the Japanese fans on hand something to get excited about even long after the game was decided. The 24-year-old scored four consecutive points for Japan toward the end of the final quarter.
Baba made two fast-break layups and then took off on another fast break, this time finishing with a right-handed slam dunk that made the Japan fans go wild.
Moments later, Baba nailed a 3-pointer. He scored nine of Japan’s 14 points in the final quarter.
For Team USA, Boston Celtics small forward Jaylen Brown was the high scorer with 20 points, while his Celtics teammate Kemba Walker followed with 15. Walker chipped in with eight assists as well. Three teammates also scored in double digits for coach Gregg Popovich’s squad.
Baba said that Japan was bewildered by the mood playing before a full house of 18,000 fans and competing against the best country in the world.
“As a team, we couldn’t really play our game with the pressure (from the U.S.). We couldn’t play the style of basketball we wanted to play,” said Baba, an Alvark Tokyo standout. “(But) individually, I was going to play aggressively. I had been a little timid in our previous two games. I think I was able to show that (aggressiveness) in this U.S. game.”
Hachimura had his toughest game going back to Japan’s warm-up contests ahead of the World Cup. But the 21-year-old Washington Wizards rookie maintained that it was a valuable lesson for the Akatsuki Five.
“We came up with a result like this,” he said, “but we played well offensively and defensively to some extent and learned some things that will be positive for Japanese basketball. We got to know how important team offense and team defense are important. We got to know we can’t go further unless our defense and rebounding improve.”
Hachimura, who had four rebounds and a pair of steals, was “very pleased” with the performance of fellow Toyama Prefecture native Baba.
“I’ve wanted Yudai to play well as my senior player,” Hachimura said. “I think it was great for Yudai to perform as well as he did. He wants to play in the NBA and there were some NBA coaches sitting (at the arena), so it was great for him.”
Shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, one of the top U.S. stars, commended Japan for battling throughout the game.
“Not a lot of teams continue to fight the way they did, being down that much,” said the Utah Jazz player, who had a 10-point outing. “Not just them but the crowd. I was on the bench and they haven’t stopped cheering. I have a lot of respect for that.”
The 22-year-old Mitchell added that he “liked” Baba’s game, saying he “was really impressive.”
Watanabe described the game as “a complete loss” for Japan. And even for a guy like him who has played in the United States the past several years since he moved there after high school, the contest was a reminder of how good Team USA is.
“I tried not to think that they are NBA players or anything like that because once you get on the court at the World Cup, it doesn’t matter if you are an NBA player or not,” Watanabe said. “This wasn’t our final game at the tournament. It was a frustrating way of finishing (the first round), but hopefully we’ll refresh our mind to continue to fight.”
Popovich looked back on the game saying that his squad gets “better each outing,” which is its goal.
“We haven’t been together very long,” said Popovich.
“I think our players have been enjoying playing with each other. We didn’t take anything for granted and we are pleased with our performance.”