It’s win or go home for the Tall Blacks in the FIBA Basketball World Cup, as they prepare for a bruising encounter with Greece tonight at MOA Arena in Manila, Philippines.
Both teams currently sport 1-1 records in Group C of this competition, with tonight’s winner locking in the number two spot behind the United States – and with that, a trip to the second round. The Tall Blacks have battled through a pair of tough games to make it to this point, beginning with their matchup last Saturday against this World Cup’s most talented squad in the United States – a 72-99 loss that saw New Zealand go toe-to-toe against the Americans in the first half.
And last night’s thrilling win against Jordan tested the squad to their very limit; Rondae Hollis-Jefferson willing his team into overtime with a brilliant individual scoring display. But the Kiwis demonstrated huge character and poise in the extra five minutes, holding Jordan to just two points on 0-7 shooting to seal a crucial 95-87 victory and a second round lifeline.
Greece presents a fresh challenge for New Zealand. Although ranked as the world’s ninth-best team according to FIBA (New Zealand is #26 by comparison), the loss of NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has been a heavy blow to this squad.
They can still fill up the stat sheet – coming into this game they are the 10th-best scoring team in the World Cup with 86.5ppg – but lack a dependable go-to scorer. Currently without a single player in the Top 50 in scoring in this World Cup, Greece relies on the trio of guard Giannoulis Larentzakis (13ppg), 7’3” centre Georgios Papagiannis (12.5ppg & 2 blocks per game) and Nikos Rogkavopoulos (12ppg & 5.5rpg) to generate the bulk of their points.
Thomas Walkup is also another strong contributor for Greece, with the 30-year-old point guard averaging 11ppg and 7 assists per game. It remains to be seen whether Giannis’ brother, Thanasis Antetokounmpo will take to the court tonight, after he suffered an injury late in Greece’s loss to the United States on Monday.
The Tall Blacks will no doubt come into this game with a measure of added confidence following their clash with Jordan. Outside shooting has become this team’s most dangerous weapon in the 2023 World Cup; the Kiwis averaging 11 triples per contest at a 4.15% clip, good enough for fifth-best in the tournament. Defence has also been New Zealand’s calling card; the team sitting 12th overall in the rankings with eight swipes per game.
No Kiwi player has combined these two traits together better than Izayah Le’afa, who sits in 20th place with 16ppg, and is currently leading the FIBA World Cup with 3 steals per contest. Le’afa also averages a team-best 3.5 made triples per game at a 44% clip, with his shooting playing a key role in the Kiwi’s win over Jordan on Monday.
He’s surrounded by a trio of solid shooters in Reuben Te Rangi (11ppg, 2.5 made triples per game at a 50% clip), Finn Delany (11ppg & 6rpg, 44% from beyond the arc) and Jordan Ngatai – who hit a trio of corner triples in the Jordan win. Balancing out the Kiwi’s threat beyond the arc, the duo of Yanni Wetzell (11.5ppg on 59% shooting) and Isaac Fotu (7.5ppg and 5rpg) have both provided a strong inside presence for New Zealand.
And it’s been the stellar play of point guard Shea Ili which has earned the praise of fans and coaches alike. Averaging 13.5ppg and 7.5 assists per game – the latter good enough for fifth-best in the competition – Coach Pero Cameron says that Ili is the engine that drives this Tall Blacks squad.
“Shea is another guy who plays both ends of the court, he accepts the challenge of picking up the [opposing] point guard and just harassing them the whole night – that’s what he’s great at,” says Cameron.
“He also came up with a couple of great plays [against Jordan] where he got to the rim, and he got a few passes off there so he would’ve had a ton of assist as well (10). The way he plays, he leads our team in a fashion – and by example – which we love; we hold him up highly for us, and I think all aspiring young basketballers in New Zealand love the way he plays.”
The Tall Blacks have only faced Greece once before in World Cup play, a 97-103 New Zealand loss thanks to 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists from Giannis. Four years on and both squads look significantly different; only four Kiwis (Fotu, Te Rangi, Ili and Smith-Milner) from that game set to play tonight, and five players returning for Greece.
The Tall Blacks face Greece in their final Group C game at 8.40pm Wed 30 August – which is 12.40am NZT, Thursday 31 August for Kiwi fans – at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Manila, Philippines. Watch all games live and free at TVNZ+ and Duke.
Find out more about the FIBA World Cup at www.fiba.basketball/basketballworldcup/2023
Tall Blacks 1st Round Schedule – FIBA Men’s Basketball World Cup
New Zealand vs USA – Sunday 27 August, 12.40am NZT (lost 72-99)
New Zealand vs Jordan – Monday 28 August, 8.45pm NZT (won 95-87)
New Zealand vs Greece – Thursday 31 August, 12.40am NZT
Tall Blacks Squad vs USA, FIBA Men’s Basketball World Cup 2023
Finn Delany, Telekom Baskets Bonn / NZ Breakers
Flynn Cameron, Melbourne United
Hyrum Harris, Hawkes Bay Hawks / Perth Wildcats
Isaac Fotu, Utsunomiya Brex
Izayah Le’Afa, Wellington Saints / NZ Breakers
Jordan Ngatai, Hawkes Bay Hawks
Reuben Te Rangi, Auckland Tuatara / S.E. Melbourne Phoenix
Shea Ili, Melbourne United
Taylor Britt, Canterbury Rams
Tohi Smith-Milner, Wellington Saints / Adelaide 36ers
Walter Brown, Canterbury Rams / Tasmania Jackjumpers
Yanni Wetzell, Alba Berlin
Greece Squad vs New Zealand