MANILA, Philippines — The Din Tai Fung restaurant next to the basketball arena being used for the 2023 FIBA World Cup is tucked in the back of Mall of Asia, on the ground floor, in between the Nike store and a Krispy Kreme.
All the hostesses, servers and restaurant staff wear masks, so it would be hard to hear what they say regardless. But during lunch and dinner rush hours, it is nearly impossible.
Each time a table is ready for the next set of guests, a preposterously loud doorbell rings, loud enough to be heard at the back of the restaurant. A computerized voice calls out the four-digit number on the ticket for whoever is about to sit down. The bell rings with the frequency of a popular home on a busy street during “Trick or Treat.”
Proud Filipinos who are excited that basketball stars, fans, officials and even reporters from all over the map have descended upon Manila for the FIBA World Cup frown when Din Tai Fung is mentioned. It’s a Chinese restaurant, and a chain at that. They’d prefer you go local, try the adobo, or maybe even the fried pig face, to get the true native experience.
But there is a certain comfort at Din Tai Fung. The fried rice with egg is delectable, the fried pork chop is done just right and the soup inside the chicken dumplings warms, but never scalds on the first bite.
There are Din Tai Fung locations in at least 12 countries, with restaurants from Shanghai to New York and L.A., which is important for getting to the point of this story. Like the stores in those big American cities, recognizable basketball talent is left alone to dine.
People in Lakers shorts, Celtics shirts, and Heat or Red Sox hats (a baseball fan in Manila!) should recognize a bearded, nearly 7-foot behemoth working over a plate of steamed vegetables. But at the Din Tai Fung next to Mall of Asia Arena, where the United States and Lithuania will play Sunday (8:40 a.m. ET, ESPN 2), they did not bother him.
Yes, Jonas Valančiūnas, the Lithuanian star and New Orleans Pelicans center, dined there the other day with teammates and family at a table in plain sight, and there was nary a disturbance. Sure, when he and his group finished lunch and walked out into the mall, they were stopped for pictures next to the Krispy Kreme, but otherwise it seemed they enjoyed a peaceful meal.
There is virtually no way Valančiūnas will go unnoticed in Lithuania’s game against the Americans. Whether he enjoys the experience depends, in part, on whether Team USA can cook up an answer for the challenge he and his fellow Lithuanians present.
The USA struggles against big teams that rebound. The Americans have played nine games and won them all — five in exhibition season and four so far at the World Cup — and have been tested three times. In a friendly against Spain, Team USA allowed 50 points in the paint, primarily to the Hernangomez brothers and Santi Aldama. Germany hammered Team USA on the glass with three NBA bigs in the teams’ final tuneup game.
Then, Montenegro stayed close in Friday’s second-round game by doing the same. Montenegro outrebounded USA, 48-31, led the game at halftime, and kept it close until the final three minutes. Nikola Vučević not only scored 18 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, but he and his tall teammates targeted the smaller American lineup in the post. They succeeded in slapping two quick fouls on USA’s tallest player, Jaren Jackson Jr., limiting him to zero rebounds and forcing the American coaching staff to switch its game plan by playing help defense down low with guards so Jackson could roam the baseline and avoid fouling.
So it’s important to consider that not only is Valančiūnas about 7 feet, but five of his teammates are at least 6-9. Lithuania is the No. 1 rebounding team at the World Cup, and Valančiūnas is averaging a hair under 10 boards per game.
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Lithuania is deeper and better than Montenegro, having also won its first four FIBA World Cup games. It is coming off a 25-point victory over Greece in which Valančiūnas racked up 15 points and nine boards. You could argue that Vučević is quicker and more versatile than Valančiūnas, but the plan for the Lithuanians Sunday is sure to be similar to what the Americans faced Friday.
Which means, unless the USA comes up with an answer it hasn’t found previously, we’re in for a nailbiter in the building next to that good Chinese restaurant.
“We understand teams are gonna try to be physical and slow the game down, and (Montenegro) did a good job of that. But our whole thing is we feel like over 40 minutes, we can wear the other team down if we stay solid,” American coach Steve Kerr said.
The USA and Lithuania have both already clinched spots in the quarterfinals next week, so this final second-round game between them is solely for seeding purposes in the bracket. There is not nearly as much riding on it as, say, the Canada-Spain game Sunday, where the loser, a championship contender, will be out of the tournament and probably unable to earn an automatic berth into the Olympics next summer.
But the Americans have a nine-game winning streak going. They’ve enjoyed wonderful continuity for a team that got together for the first time Aug. 3, and another victory would pave the easiest path.
Kerr has said he is set on at least one part of the recent lineup change he made: playing Brandon Ingram off the bench. But to do that, he made his starting group small by replacing the 6-8 Ingram with Josh Hart, who is 6-5.
Hart is still the team’s leading rebounder at 7.3 boards per game, but he was held to just two rebounds against Montenegro. (Ingram actually led the USA with five boards in that game. Go figure. Also, Ingram, like Valančiūnas, plays in the NBA for the New Orleans Pelicans. Their coach, Willie Green, and team president, David Griffin, are both here to watch them play).
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Paolo Banchero, who is playing through a right thumb injury, and Bobby Portis are the two back-up bigs Kerr has used the most. They each secured four rebounds on Friday.
Kerr could decide to start one of them next to Jackson and immediately try to limit Lithuania’s obvious strength. His assistant coach, Tyronn Lue, is famous for designing defenses to take away an opponent’s strength, especially in playoff settings. But going big against Lithuania would take some of the transition offense away that the Americans typically feature.
“We gotta be more physical, man,” said Anthony Edwards, who produced 17 points Friday and is USA’s leading scorer for the tournament. “We gotta get in there ’cause we, sometimes we go small and I might be at the 4, so, you know, we just gotta, I gotta be more physical. All of us guards (have to). But I feel like we did a pretty good job. A couple of those rebounds were on air balls, so we couldn’t really gauge it.”
The irony is Team USA, as of Saturday, is second at the World Cup in rebounds, tied with Angola, at 42 boards per game. But when the Americans find themselves in a tight game, it is so glaringly obvious as to why: they haven’t been good enough in the paint in those situations.
So far, they’ve been able to overcome that weakness.
“I think that’s why we play exhibition games, to kind of get tested so you’re prepared when it really hits you in a game with real implications,” Tyrese Haliburton said. “I think we faced some adversity … in exhibition games and then we’ve started some games slow this tournament, so I think (being in close games previously has) definitely helped. Guys don’t get rattled. We’re a close group, so we just come together to see where we have to be better.”
Where they have to get better is against players the likes of Valančiūnas, who will be commanding all sorts of attention on Sunday.
(Photo of Jonas Valančiūnas: Ted Aljibe / AFP via Getty Images)