By DOUG FEINBERG AP Basketball Writer
SAITAMA, Japan — The U.S. women’s basketball team has not looked sharp in its first two wins at the Tokyo Games.
Five-time Olympian Sue Bird attributes the pedestrian performances to the lack of practice time with so many new faces on the squad, and just that the rest of the world is catching up to the Americans.
“This tournament more than ever feels like a combination of things,” Bird said. “I’m never not going to give credit to other countries for putting out a great product. There’s so much talent. I think this tournament for us is unique in that we have six newcomers and you can’t rush chemistry. … We’re still trying to figure it out.”
The U.S. beat Japan, 86-69, on Friday (Thursday night PT), three days beating Nigeria by nine in the opener. That was the first time a team had come within single digits of the Americans in the Olympics since 2004. While the U.S. has now won 51 consecutive games dating to the bronze-medal game in the 1992 Olympics, the 13-point average margin of victory in the first two games in Japan is far below that of the previous six Olympics when they would run through teams.
“I feel like we’ve been telling you guys for years that we’re making it look easy, something that’s really hard,” Bird said Friday. “Now what you’re seeing is, we told you so, it is hard. That’s not to say we’re not headed in the right direction.”
A’ja Wilson scored 20 points and Breanna Stewart added 15 to lead the U.S. over Japan.
It was a matchup of contrasting styles. The U.S. had its dominant group of bigs, led by the 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner. Japan’s tallest player is only 6-1. The host nation, which is the only team in the field to have beaten the U.S. in an Olympic game (in 1976), played a more free-flowing style with all five players capable of shooting 3-pointers.
Despite the size disadvantage, Japan was able to consistently beat the Americans off the dribble, get to the basket and score early. When the Japanese team wasn’t getting by the U.S., it was connecting on 3-pointers. The team hit six in the opening period and led 30-28 after one quarter.
The U.S. (2-0) then clamped down defensively over the next 10 minutes. With the score tied at 36, the Americans scored seven consecutive points to start a 13-4 run to close the half. Griner had six points during the spurt and Stewart had a massive blocked shot after a U.S. turnover.
The Americans led 49-40 at the break.
Japan cut the deficit to five in the third quarter but couldn’t get any closer as Wilson, Stewart and Griner dominated inside. The trio combined for 50 points and 28 rebounds.
“We knew they get a lot of 3s, we weathered the storm and tried to get them to make more 2s,” said Griner, who had 15 points. “We definitely had a size advantage so wanted to get it in.”
Maki Takada scored 15 to lead Japan (1-1).
Bird has struggled from the field the first two games, missing her first 13 shots before having a 3-pointer roll in off the front of the rim from the top of the key in the fourth quarter against Japan. Once it went through the net she let out a sigh of relief. Her floor game has been better than her shooting; she has 19 assists in the two games.
“Every basketball player has been through something like this,” Bird said. “It feels good to finally see one go in. I try to not overthink it. Yes, it’s frustrating, but it’s part of the game. I’m sure I’ll make more. You have to have a short memory. It’s so much easier said than done. … It’s unfortunate it’s happening right now. I’ll just keep throwing them up there.”
Skylar Diggins warmed up before the game but didn’t play. USA Basketball said she got a little banged up in practice. … Most of the U.S. men’s team came to watch the game, sitting a couple of rows up from the court. … A game after committing 25 turnovers, Team USA had 17. … Japan shot 10 for 38 from behind the 3-point arc.
Team USA plays France on Monday to finish group play.
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