By Zoran Milosavljevic
(Reuters) - A second-string U.S. team started their basketball World Cup title defense with a 114-55 mauling of Finland on Saturday, while Pau Gasol also lit up the opening day with 33 points and eight rebounds for hosts Spain in a 90-60 victory over Iran.
European champions France slipped to a 65-63 defeat by Brazil while Croatia had a close shave against the Philippines, scratching out an 81-78 win in overtime.
The United States, with their top players from the NBA declining to play in the 24-nation event, struggled early on to impose themselves on the Finns, who were roared on by some 8,000 of their noisy fans at Bilbao’s Bizkaia Arena.
However, the crowd fell silent as the athletic U.S. team found their stride and raced out to a 60-18 halftime lead.
The Americans confined Finland to a handful of free throws from late in the first quarter until early in the third, while hitting three-pointers and converting fast breaks at the other end almost at will.
Klay Thompson netted 18 points and center Anthony Davis added 17, with all 12 U.S. players scoring in a one-sided contest.
“We had a pretty good first quarter but we felt we could take it to another level,” guard James Harden told ESPN television.
In a repeat of the 2010 final on Sunday, the United States take on Turkey, who overcame a 12-point second-half deficit to beat New Zealand 76-73 thanks to 16 points from center Oguz Savas.
Spain, packed with NBA and Euroleague talent, never needed to get out of second gear against Iran in Granada, and are unlikely to face stiffer resistance on Sunday against Egypt.
Gasol led the way with a superb all-round performance and his brother Marc chipped in with 15 and 10 boards for the Spaniards, who are bidding to win their second title after beating Greece in the 2006 final.
"It was a good win to start the championship but we still need to show more intensity in defense,” Marc Gasol told Cuatro television.
“The backing from the fans means a lot to us, this is only the start and there is a long way to go."
Iran coach Mehmed Becirovic told a news conference: “In this World Cup everyone expects a final between Spain and the United States. We played quite well but we were up against a side that was too strong.”
Argentina romped to a 98-75 win over Puerto Rico on the back of 20 points from center Luis Scola, while guard Goran Dragic led Slovenia to a 90-80 defeat of Australia with 21 points and seven rebounds.
Serbia eased to an 85-64 win over Egypt and former European champions Lithuania beat Mexico 87-74 with center Jonas Valanciunas racking up 17 points and five boards.
The top four teams from each of the four preliminary round pools will advance to the last 16, when the knockout stage of the tournament starts in Madrid and Barcelona.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Additional reporting by Tim Hanlon in Barcelona; Editing by Peter Rutherford)