The Golden State Warriors had never competed in Japan, either.
And now both teams can proudly say, Been there, done that.
In an entertaining, high-paced contest, the Warriors defeated the Wizards 97-86 in the opener of the NBA Japan Games 2022 at Saitama Super Arena on Friday night, September 30 before an announced crowd of 20,497.
"I was so happy to be able to play in front of these fans," said Hachimura, a Toyama native, in a postgame news conference.
The teams will meet again in their second preseason game here on Sunday, October 2. Tipoff is 2 PM.
Center James Wiseman gave the Warriors a seemingly insurmountable 88-78 lead with a forceful dunk with 4:51 remaining. The 21-year-old missed the entire 2021-22 season due to a right knee injury.
Wiseman finished with a game-high 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including five dunks, and a sense of satisfaction from returning to action.
"It felt good just to be on the court with my teammates," Wiseman said.
Noting the grueling hours of physical rehabilitation it required, Kerr expressed pleasure in seeing Wiseman shine.
"To see him rewarded in his first preseason game is fantastic," the coach said.
But the Wizards refused to quit. Taj Gibson, a 13-season NBA veteran, buried a 3-pointer near the 3-minute mark to trim the lead to 90-85.
Washington was unable to rally for a win over the final few minutes, though.
Setting the Pace
Hachimura paced the Wizards with 13 points and nine rebounds in 25-plus minutes (the most on the team). Fellow starters Bradley Beal and Monte Morris finished with nine points apiece. Backup center Daniel Gafford had eight points.
For the Warriors, guard Donte DiVincenzo, a Villanova University alum and a newcomer to the team, poured in nine points, corralled seven rebounds and handed out two assists in 17 impressive minutes, reserve guard Ryan Rollins scored eight points, while backup forward Patrick Baldwin Jr had seven. Superstar guard Stephen Curry scored six points on 1-for-7 shooting in 13 minutes. Jonathan Kuminga and Quinndary Weatherspoon also scored six points apiece.
Both teams relied heavily on their backups throughout the game. A combined 26 players logged 10 or more minutes in the contest.
Coaches Analyze the Game
Addressing the mixing and matching of players, testing different combinations in their exhibition opener, Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr said he was mostly pleased with what he saw.
"Overall it was good," he said, addressing the question of team chemistry. "We did some good things in stretches."
Performance-wise, Unseld noted that both offenses struggled, calling it a "rough shooting night" for his squad and the reigning champions.
That said, Unseld said the international promotion of the game in Japan is important.
Before the game began, there was "a very warm reception for both teams [from the fans], especially Rui," Unseld observed.
And what did Kerr think of the atmosphere?
"The crowd was so into it," Kerr said, calling it a "really good atmosphere."
Kerr is a fervent supporter of the NBA's efforts to grow the sport on a global scale.
"The more international players we can get, the more popular the game becomes in that player's country," he said.
Something for the Fans to Remember
Before the opening tipoff, Curry and Hachimura stood on the court and greeted the sold-out crowd. They were the last starters to be introduced by the public address announcer for their respective teams during the pre-game introductions.
"Thank you for coming out," Curry said. "We hope to put on a good show."
Hachimura also expressed his thanks to the fans.
Indicative of their huge popularity in Japan, both players' jerseys were worn by what appeared to be hundreds of fans to the game.
Slow Start on Offense for Both Teams
The Warriors led 16-12 after the first quarter.
As both teams aimed for consistency, the Warriors made 5 of 22 shots in the opening quarter. The Wizards were 6-for-25.
Reigning NBA champion Golden State extended the margin to 29-19 early in the second stanza before the Wizards called a timeout at the 7:36 mark.
During a quick sequence of plays, Hachimura helped trim the lead to three. He grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled the ball to the other end of the court and sank a mid-range jumper. Seconds later, he scored on a left-handed layup and was fouled on the play, then stepped to the free-throw line and made the subsequent shot to pull Washington within 29-26.
The Wizards trailed 41-37 at halftime. Washington's Delon Wright knocked down a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on the final play of the half.
By halftime, the Warriors had made 12 of 45 shots. Curry led the club with six points, followed by Moses Moody and Andrew Wiggins with five apiece.
The Wizards shot 16-for-50 in the opening half. Beal had nine points in that span. Hachimura provided eight points and nine rebounds (tops among all players) and Kyle Kuzma added seven points.
Hachimura again excited the crowd in the third quarter.
Near the midway point of the period, he made a driving bank shot, displaying quickness and athleticism. He then added a post-up jumper to reduce the Warriors' lead to 61-53, receiving big cheers from the crowd as the ball sailed through the net.
Hachimura's aggressive play on offense led to his being awarded two free throws seconds later. And he made the first of two shots.
The Warriors led 69-64 entering the fourth quarter.
For the full 48 minutes, the Warriors made 36.7% of their shots (29 of 79). The Wizards were 31 of 84 (36.9%), including 6 of 35 from 3-point range.
In the Paint
Speaking to reporters before the game, Kerr commented on the global growth of basketball over the past three decades. Specifically, responding to a question about more than 100 international players competing in NBA games last season, he said: "It's just made our league a whole lot better."
Kerr cited Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Greek-born superstar, and Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic, who hails from Serbia, as prime examples.
Meanwhile, the Warriors coaching staff decided not to play shooting guard Klay Thompson in the two games against the Wizards as a cautionary measure, Kerr said, citing the team had only had 3½ practices before facing Washington. Thompson missed two full seasons (2019-20 and 2020-21) due to a knee injury and a torn right Achilles tendon. Thompson is "just not quite ready to play at this point," Kerr said.
In other pre-game topics addressed during a news conference, Unseld said Hachimura's growth as a player carried over from the latter half of last season to the offseason, adding that he had productive workouts over the summer.
According to Unseld, 3-point shooting and the facets of the game connected to the long-range shot are focal points of Hachimura's progress.
In his explanation to reporters, Unseld said Hachimura has improved "reading and reacting off the dribble" and "playing off the bounce."
Golden Memories from 2021
In response to a reporter's question before the game, Kerr, who served as an assistant coach for the gold medal-winning United States men's basketball team at the Tokyo Olympics, joked about his return to Saitama Super Arena for the first time since August 2021.
"The locker room still smells like champagne," Kerr quipped.
He said that upon arriving at the arena on Friday he snapped a photograph of the venue and sent it to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who served as Team USA bench boss at the Tokyo Games.
Reflecting further on the American squad's experience in Japan last summer, when COVID-19 restrictions prohibited athletes, coaches and other personnel from traveling outside of the Olympic bubble, Kerr noted that 19 days here consisted of staying in the hotel and visiting the gym, nothing more.
For the team, he said, it was an experience "that we will all share forever."
Representing the NBA
Mark Tatum, the NBA's deputy commissioner and chief operating officer since 2014, is the league's highest-ranking official in Japan for the two preseason games. In October 2019, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attended the Houston Rockets-Toronto Raptors games in Saitama.
“Basketball shows a tremendous momentum here in Japan in terms of the growth, and these games are just going to continue that momentum," Tatum was quoted as saying by Forbes at a reception the night before the two-game series opener.
Also in attendance at Game 1 of the preseason series in Saitama were retired NBA players Shaun Livingston, Drew Gooden, Antawn Jamison, Richard Hamilton, Tim Hardaway, Dikembe Mutombo and Gheorghe Muresan. All of them appeared on the giant video scoreboard and they waved to fans.
Tennis player Naomi Osaka was also spotted in the crowd.
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