by Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, September 2, 2002 - As the games become more serious, so does the United States.
Granted, the Russian team didn't offer the traditional level of opposition, but the U.S. nonetheless looked much more the part of prohibitive tournament favorite in a 106-82 victory in the second round of the World Basketball Championship on Monday night at Conseco Fieldhouse.
The United States (4-0) faces New Zealand on Tuesday night at 8 p.m. in Conseco Fieldhouse. Russia (1-3), in danger of being eliminated in the second round, faces a critical game against China at 8 p.m. in the RCA Dome.
Settling comfortably into the role of go-to scorer, Paul Pierce was the dominant force for the U.S., scoring 20 of his 27 points in the third period, including four consecutive 3-pointers. Andre Miller added 18, Antonio Davis 13 and Elton Brand 11.
"In general, I thought the second half was great," said U.S. coach George Karl. "Riding a horse like that is very NBA-ish, but Paul got cooking and our defense got rolling. I was a little upset in the first half that we were kind of loose with the game and didn't respect Russia's skills as much as we should have. But in the second half we got going and Paul, Andre and Antonio were the sparks."
Zakhar Pachoutine led Russia with 16 points. Rouslan Avleev had 11 and Evgueny Pachoutine 10. Star forward Andrei Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz did not play after aggravating a left ankle injury in practice on Sunday. It is not clear if he will be available Tuesday night.
"The U.S. team was much better than our team and they showed it," said Russia's coach, Stansilav Eremine. "The main thing for us tonight was thinking about tomorrow's game. I think we are more fresh now than at the beginning of the tournament, and hopefully that will continue."
Despite second-place finishes in the 1994 and '98 worlds, this is not your father's Russian team, with a roster in transition between old and new. Russia barely qualified for the WBC, finishing fifth in the European championships - and narrowly beating France to do so.
Still, the underdogs managed to stay close for the first 15 minutes, with a 9-3 run cutting the U.S. lead to 24-22 in the first quarter. It was 38-35 midway through the second when Andre Miller scored seven consecutive points to start a 13-3 run that built a 51-38 lead.
Russia scored seven in a row to close to 51-44 but Reggie Miller, with his first field goal attempt of the tournament, swished a 25-foot 3-pointer to quell the threat and send the U.S. into the locker room with a 10-point lead. That was a sizeable improvement over the previous two games, when Germany, then China both trailed by a single point at the break.
Pierce then broke things open with his third-quarter scoring display.
"If we do not lose Miller for that basket at the end," said Eremine, "maybe the game is different."
After sitting out the first three games with a sprained right ankle, Miller checked in for the first time late in the first half. He played just nine minutes overall, but his one basket turned out to be a significant contribution.
"Reggie's bee a real vocal leader on the bench, patting everybody on the back and talking all the time," said Andre Miller. "That was an easy shot, an open shot, he knocked it down and we fed off of that going into the half."
Karl said he is anxious to return Reggie Miller to the rotation, in part because of the value of his perimeter shooting but also for the leadership and inspiration the 37-year-old veteran provides.
"The team really seemed like they wanted Reggie out there," Karl said. "We ran everything for him during the time he was out there. He had a great camp for us, was one of our best players and we really hope we can get him back into the personality of our team."
Miller's teammate with the Indiana Pacers, Jermaine O'Neal, started for the third time in four games and scored six points with two blocked shots in 15 minutes.
"When I crossed center court and the defense broke down, Michael (Finley) did a good job reacting to the defense and got me the ball," said Reggie Miller of his shot.
But what of his ankle?
“It’s sore and won’t get any better in a week," he said. "If I want to play in the quarterfinals, semifinals, I need to play now. “