CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — Isaiah Thomas made sure USA Basketball’s road to the 2023 World Cup didn’t begin with a major upset.
Thomas scored 21 points, including a sealing 3-pointer with 13.3 seconds left, and the Americans erased a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Cuba 95-90 on Sunday in their World Cup qualifying opener.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to put USA on your chest,” the 32-year-old Thomas said. “So, anytime USA Basketball comes calling, I’m always going to be for it. We have a great group of guys, a great coaching staff, and it was fun to be out there. It was a great game. It was a tough game for us.”
The lead was just two after a Cuba basket by Jasiel Rivero with 34 seconds remaining. The U.S. didn’t call a timeout, and Thomas kept the ball in his hands for the entirety of what became the biggest possession of the game for the Americans.
The two-time NBA All-Star — who averaged 29 points for the Boston Celtics in 2016-17 and spent a considerable amount of time battling injuries since — waited for a screen, used it and connected from near the top of the key for a 93-88 lead.
“We have prepared for those moments,” U.S. coach Jim Boylen said. “We were organized. And he made a huge play.”
Thomas — an NBA free agent with hopes of getting back into the league — last appeared on the national team in February, starting two games during qualifying for the AmeriCup. He led the team with 14 points per game in those contests, with the U.S. defeating the Bahamas and Mexico.
He was in the NBA briefly last season, averaging 7.7 points in three games with New Orleans.
“For me, personally, the ultimate goal is to get back in the NBA,” Thomas said. “But I just love playing the game of basketball. So, obviously, at some point, if the NBA isn’t an option, I’ve got to look at options overseas. But I’m in love with the game. No matter where I’m playing, I have no pride whatsoever. I love competing and I love playing against the best players in the world.”
Brian Bowen II and B.J. Johnson each scored 16 points for the U.S., while Justin Anderson added 10 for the Americans.
Rivero, who plays professionally in the top Spanish league, led all scorers with 34 points for Cuba. Karel Guzman scored 18 and Yoanki Mensia finished with 12 for Cuba.
“We give all the respect to Cuba,” Thomas said. “They were a hell of a team. They made everything tough for us. They were talented.”
Marcos Chacon’s 3-pointer with 8:45 left gave Cuba an 80-73 lead. The Americans answered with a quick 9-0 run — Bowen and Thomas made 3-pointers to get the U.S. within one, then Thomas added a three-point play to cap the flurry and put his team back on top 82-80.
It was tied twice more from there. Johnson’s 3-pointer pushed the U.S. edge to 88-84 with 2:46 left, and Thomas sealed it in the final moments.
“We stuck to the game plan and we got a win,” Thomas said.
USA Basketball is using a roster composed primarily of G League players for qualifying, then added Thomas a few days before training camp began earlier this month in Houston. The U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world by FIBA and is coming off the Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games, but it still needs to qualify all over again for the World Cup — which is one of the paths teams can use toward qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The U.S. concludes its trip to Mexico by playing the host nation in another qualifying game on Monday night. The two games in Mexico are the first of six first-round games for the U.S. in World Cup qualifying. The Americans are also scheduled to play Puerto Rico on Feb. 24, Mexico on Feb. 27, Puerto Rico on July 1 and Cuba again on July 4 in the opening qualifying round.
There are four teams in each of four qualifying groups out of the FIBA Americas region. The top three teams in each group move on to the second round of qualifying, which starts in August and runs through February 2023.
The World Cup is scheduled Aug. 25 to Sept. 10, 2023, with the final in the Philippines and other games taking place in Japan and Indonesia.
USA: Faces Mexico on Monday.
Cuba: Faces Puerto Rico on Monday.