ISTANBUL — In the political arena, Iran vs. the United States is a matchup that gets attention.
In a basketball arena, not so much.
“For me, it’s a normal game,” Iran captain Mahdi Kamrany said.
Article continues below ...
The United States won it easily, earning a top seed in the knockout round of the world championship with an 88-51 victory Wednesday in the first meeting between the countries with a history of contentious relations.
The U.S. team, which downplayed the political aspect of the game, methodically pulled away in the first half, wearing down the Asian champions with its depth and athleticism.
“We just respected their basketball team and we just played a basketball game,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “There’s no political aspect in my mind in the ballgame.”
Kevin Love scored 13 points and Kevin Durant 12 for the Americans (4-0), who will meet the fourth-place team from Group A in the round of 16.
After playing his starters for most of the second half of a 70-68 victory over Brazil on Monday, Krzyzewski went to the bench early in this one, with the Americans shooting 58 percent and scoring 23 points off turnovers in the easy victory.
Hamed Haddadi scored 19 points for Iran (1-3) and Arsalan Kazemi had 14.
“I’m very happy, I played against the best team in the world,” Kamrany said.
The tensions between the nations’ governments provided the backdrop off the court, with a group of fans sitting near midcourt before the game holding U.S. and Iran flags and a sign reading “PEACE” in between.
The only sparring on the floor was a playful bump between Haddadi and U.S. forward Rudy Gay, teammates with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.
“We should leave politics to the politicians,” U.S. center Tyson Chandler said. “We’re here to play basketball.”
The countries have feuded for decades and their relations have deteriorated in recent years, with the United States supporting sanctions against Iran for continuing with programs it believes could be used to create nuclear weapons.
The U.S. team tried to keep the focus on the floor, with Krzyzewski saying he had played in Iran in the 1970s with an Armed Forces team and had great respect for the country.
Krzyzewski was answering a question about turnovers in the postgame news conference when he noticed Iran coach Veselin Matic to his left nodding in agreement.
“That’s the first level of diplomacy. That’s one thing we’re in agreement with,” Krzyzewski joked.
There’s no rivalry on the basketball court, where the nations had never met in Olympic or world championship play. The Iranian national team even came to Utah two years ago at the invitation of the NBA to play in a summer league as preparation for the 2008 Olympics.
And in a nod to the Iranian supporters in Istanbul — which included minister of sports Ali Saeedlou earlier in the tournament — dancers were ordered to cover up for their performances during the game. Islam prohibits women from exposing their skin in public, and Iranian officials had turned their backs when the dancers performed in earlier games.
The dancers wore long pants Wednesday.
Iranian fans, many waving flags and chanting, had plenty to cheer early. Haddadi won the opening tip, Durant fired a pass behind Andre Iguodala and out of bounds on the Americans’ first possession, and the U.S. lead was only six after one quarter.
But the Americans quickly pushed it into double digits in the second and gradually extended it to 14 at halftime. They opened the second half with another burst to push it past 20 and turn Group B’s second game of the night into a dull affair.
Krzyzewski said he thought the Americans were tired, more mentally than physically, against Brazil, in what was their third game in three days and sixth in 10 — in three different countries. They were fresher after a day off, with Krzyzewski saying they looked better in the second half.
“As the game moved along we got better in the game,” he said.
Following Thursday’s game against winless Tunisia, the Americans will have three days off before playing Monday against an opponent still to be determined. But a difficult quarterfinal could follow, with Spain looming as a possible opponent after two surprising losses have dropped the defending world champions into third place in their group.
The Americans want to have their reserves playing well by then, and all 12 players scored Wednesday. Derrick Rose had 11 points and Danny Granger added 10.