Tyrese Haliburton loves road games. Few things in basketball make him happier than going into a hostile environment and hearing the sweet sound of disappointed silence.
And as part of USA Basketball’s World Cup team, he’s finding like-minded people.
No longer the No. 1 ranked nation in the world according to FIBA — Spain overtook the Americans last November and off the top of the list for the first time in 12 years — and coming off a seventh-place finish in the last World Cup four years ago, this now No. 2 ranked U.S. team knows there’s no shortage of doubters entering this tournament. Haliburton likes it that way.
“Everybody here has a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, because I think that we all know that the world is looking at us like, ‘This is the time that we’re going to beat the United States,’” said Haliburton, the Indiana Pacers’ All-Star guard. “And that bothers the (heck) out of everybody.”
The U.S. knows all the reasons why some may think it’s vulnerable in this World Cup: The team has no All-NBA players (the only two who intend to play in the tournament are Slovenia’s Luka Doncic of Dallas and Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of Oklahoma City), nobody on the roster has ever played on the World Cup or Olympic stage, and there’s not a lot of experience playing together as opposed to some nations who have had a team core together for years.
It does, however, have tons of talent. Of the six players expected to be in the World Cup who were NBA All-Stars last season, three — Haliburton, Jaren Jackson Jr. of Memphis and Anthony Edwards of Minnesota — play for the U.S. (The others are Doncic, Gilgeous-Alexander and Finland’s Lauri Markkanen of Utah.) The Americans have six players who averaged at least 20 points in the NBA last season, and a 43-point win over Puerto Rico in the exhibition opener at Las Vegas earlier this week was loaded with good signs.
“I’m playing for the United States. We know what our calling is,” U.S. forward Bobby Portis of Milwaukee said. “Our standard is gold. Anything less than that is kind of a failure for us. But with me, man, I just have the same mentality on a daily basis. I’m still counted out. I see a lot of guys that think that I shouldn’t even be on the team. I have to go out there and prove it on a daily basis that I belong here. … I play with a chip on my shoulder, a log on my shoulder, and that’ll never change.”
There are no more “home” games for the U.S. this summer; at least, no more games on U.S. soil. The World Cup team plays the first of four foreign exhibitions on Saturday in Malaga, Spain against Slovenia, followed by a matchup Sunday against the host Spaniards.
From there, two more friendly games await next week in Abu Dhabi against Greece and Germany before the team heads to the Philippines to start the World Cup against New Zealand on Aug. 26.
“We really need these exhibition games that we’re playing,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr of Golden State said. “We had one in Las Vegas, we’ll have two here in Malaga, and then the two coming up in Abu Dhabi before we get into tournament play. These games are really important. … It’s very exciting for us and hopefully we’ll continue to improve as we go so that we’ll be in really good form for Manila.”
Of the four remaining exhibition games, three are technically in neutral sites. The U.S. is organizing the games in Abu Dhabi, and there’ll be quite a bit of interest in the Americans once they get to the Philippines — U.S. assistant coach Erik Spoelstra of Miami is a national hero there since it’s his mother’s homeland, and the country follows NBA games feverishly.
So, yes, the U.S. will hear some cheering this summer. But any booing might spark them just as much.
“Some guys, they don’t read any negative stuff because they can’t, their mental wouldn’t allow it,” Haliburton said. “But I can only speak for myself, and the way I’m wired is this – I like negativity. I love it. I love negativity. And I think we’ve got a lot of guys wired like that.”
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