There were no scares for the United States men's basketball team on Thursday.
After escaping with a one-point victory over Turkey on Tuesday, the Red, White and Blue finished first-round action in Group E of the 2019 FIBA World Cup with a dominant 98-45 win over Japan at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, China.
The United States unleashed a balanced scoring attack that featured five players in double figures, including Kemba Walker (15 points and eight assists), Jaylen Brown (20 points, seven rebounds and two steals) and Donovan Mitchell (10 points, six assists and three rebounds).
There wasn't much at stake Thursday since the 3-0 Americans already clinched a spot in the second round and the 0-3 Japan side had already been eliminated before the tip. The top two teams in each group advance to the second round, and the Czech Republic will join the United States out of Group E after moving to 2-1 with a win over Turkey.
While there wasn't much pressure on Gregg Popovich's team, it was surely looking to inspire confidence with a better performance after being outplayed for extended stretches against Turkey.
Jayson Tatum forced overtime in that game with two late free throws, and Khris Middleton made two more with 2.1 seconds remaining in the extra period to put his team up for good. Middleton only had that opportunity because Turkey missed four consecutive free throws down the stretch that could have put the Americans away.
It was the type of lackluster performance many feared would prevent the United States from winning a third straight FIBA World Cup gold, especially since so many star players pulled out of competition before the tournament began.
What's more, Tatum sprained his left ankle in the final seconds and will be sidelined for at least one more game after Thursday's contest, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst. USA Basketball also announced Marcus Smart was out for the game against Japan with a left quad strain.
If there was ever a time for a first-round statement to overcome recent adversity, it was this game, and the United States wasted no time sending it.
It scored the first 13 points and jumped out to a 33-point halftime lead. It was the defense that made the biggest impression early, holding Japan to just nine points and 25 percent shooting in the first quarter by swarming its ball-handlers and contesting almost every shot.
Japan never had much of a chance against the Americans' size and physical advantage down low.
The U.S. finished with a 58-33 rebounding advantage and consistently created second-chance opportunities with 20 offensive boards. The effort on the glass helped negate some early shooting struggles against Japan's 2-3 zone and allowed the victors to put the game away in the first half.
The size also created opportunities for lobs on the break and easy baskets in the paint.
It wasn't just rebounding and paint scoring that carried Popovich's side. Walker and Mitchell started gliding through the Japanese defense, either creating scoring chances for themselves or opening up teammates on the outside with their penetration.
As a result, the three-point shooting and zone offense improved as the game progressed. The United States hit 14 triples in all, as Mitchell, Walker, Brown, Joe Harris and Harrison Barnes each drained multiple shots from beyond the arc. The team finished with a 34.1 percentage from three.
That extended Japan's defense and opened up lanes and transition chances for rim-rattling dunks:
There would be no putting things on cruise control for an American side looking to build some momentum heading into the later rounds. The lead ballooned to as high as 62 points for a team that looked much more ready for the more daunting challenges to come.
The United States shifts its attention Group K play in the second round. The group consists of the top two finishers from Group E and the top two from Group F (Brazil and Giannis Antetokounmpo's Greece), and the results from the first round carry over in the standings.
Each squad plays the two teams it did not face in the first round, so the Americans will go up against Greece on Saturday and Brazil on Monday. The top two teams in the group advance to the quarterfinals.
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