SAPPORO, Japan -- After the United States whipped Slovenia
114-95 Tuesday night, LeBron James was asked if he would guarantee
a world championship.
"No way," James said with a chuckle. "It's too far away."
But after three double-digit victories, the idea of the U.S.
winning its first FIBA World Championship since 1994 isn't far-fetched.
The U.S. has won its first three Group D games -- against Puerto
Rico, China and Slovenia -- by an average of 20.3 points. It hasn't
trailed after halftime.
The Americans face their sternest test in group play Wednesday
night against Italy, which improved to 3-0 with a comeback victory
over Senegal on Tuesday.
"We're improving every game," forward Shane Battier said. "If
we can continue to play the defense we've shown in stretches for
longer stretches, we're going to be in very good shape for this
The victory over Slovenia clinched a trip to the second round,
which was seen as a foregone conclusion.
Captain Dwyane Wade had 20 points to lead the U.S. in scoring
for the second game in a row. Wade is the team's top scorer,
averaging 19.7 points per game.
Point guard Chris Paul had nine assists and two turnovers. Kirk
Hinrich led the U.S. with seven rebounds.
Sani Becirovic scored 18 points to lead Slovenia, which had five
players in double figures.
The U.S. used a potent combination of defense and 3-point
shooting to blow the game open.
Three-point shooting had been one of Team USA's few flaws in the
first two games. The Americans shot 33 percent from beyond the arc
against Puerto Rico and 30 percent against China.
On Tuesday night, their long-range shots finally started to
fall. The U.S. went 7-for-11 on 3-point shots (64 percent) in the
first half and finished 10-for-20 (50 percent).
Battier went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc and James and Antawn
Jamison each hit two of four.
"It's a totally different thing when they're hitting 3-point
shots," Slovenian swingman Bostjan Nachbar said. "When they make
3s, you can't pull the defenders in and hope for rebounds. That
opens the lane, and then they're really tough to stop."
At the defensive end, the U.S. struggled to stop the Slovenians
in the early going but quickly adjusted. Slovenia had its biggest
lead -- 21-16 -- with 2:45 to play in the first quarter when the
Americans went on an 11-0 run. During the spurt, the U.S. forced
three turnovers in less than two minutes.
With four NBA players, the Slovenians weren't awed by Team USA.
But they needed to take better care of the ball to have any hopes
for a massive upset. They also needed to hit 3-point shots to
stretch the American defense.
Slovenia made only two of six 3-point shots in the first half
and finished 6-for-15 (40 percent).
"Tonight in the first half, our defense was the best it's
been," U.S. assistant coach Jim Boeheim said. "We held them to
two 3-point shots in the first half. That's a big statistic, I
think, for us. That and forcing turnovers. Those two things are why
we were ahead at halftime. And when you force turnovers you get
easier shots at the other end."
The U.S. harried Slovenia into 16 first-half turnovers, which
led to 22 points, many of them on dunks. Slovenia finished with 25
In the first three games here, the Americans have forced 64
The Americans led Slovenia by 29 points in the second half
before falling asleep and letting the Slovenians pull within 105-94
with 2:15 to go. Wade's putback ended the run.
"They didn't go away," Battier said. "There's something to be
said for that."