U.S. Team Needs Only Strong Half to Make a Whole : Basketball: Americans sleepwalk past Greece, 97-58, and into title game today against Russia.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Informed the top Greek players would make only cameo appearances Saturday night, the United States hit the snooze alarm, resulting in a first half that looked like the Dallas Mavericks playing the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Awaking at halftime, the Americans turned a 10-point lead into a 97-58 rout and advanced to the World Championships final today in a rematch against Russia, a surprise 66-64 winner over Croatia. The United States defeated Russia, 111-94, on Friday.

The Greeks, well rested after using their top four players 22 minutes or less, meet Croatia for the bronze medal.

"The game was more like a celebration for us," said Greek guard Panagiotis Yiannakis.

"First of all, we are happy to qualify to be in the top four in the world. Tonight we were playing with players five or six years ago we couldn't imagine. And we were able to save our energy and focus on playing for the bronze medal."

U.S. Coach Don Nelson, concerned about fatigue after seven games in 10 days, planned to play his own top players lightly and started a new lineup: Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, Dominique Wilkins, Mark Price and Dan Majerle. Mourning and Price had played well but Johnson has been invisible, Majerle erratic and Nelson's plan for 'Nique, until he griped, was a lot of bench time.

The U.S. starters missed 21 of 26 shots in the first half and Nelson started subbing in his top five: Shaquille O'Neal, Shawn Kemp, Reggie Miller, Joe Dumars and Kevin Johnson.

Shaq entered with 11:21 left in the half and the United States trailing, 17-14. The Americans then regained the lead, went up by 10 at the half and decided to try the second half with their eyes open.

"It wasn't our best start, as I'm sure you're aware," said Nelson. "I think the important thing, two things were accomplished: first of all, we got to rest a lot of our players who have played a lot. Secondly, we had a change of energy in the second half."

The Americans started the half with a 27-8 run. By the time it was over, the new Greek coach, Makos Dendrinos, had all his top players on the bench.

For the Greeks, merely appearing on the court with the United States was a dream. Picked to go nowhere, they started the tournament by losing their coach, Efthimis Kiounourtzolov, who resigned after a spat with star center Panagiotis Fassoulas.

"I missed a practice and he ordered me off the team," said Fassoulas. "He went to the Greek federation but the federation could not take the responsibility. He took an airplane and left.

"We have a pretty good team. Our goals were not so high, to tell you the truth. Our goal was to get to the final eight.

"Actually Greek players are tired of the national team. I've been playing since 1981."

The Greeks' joy in the experience was barely fazed by the nightly display of American boorishness. Whether from boredom, immaturity or both, several U.S. players--notably Derrick Coleman--can't seem to grasp their role as ambassadors. On Saturday, Coleman snapped off a long string of obscenities at Greek players sitting on their bench.

"We were going through the motions," said Kevin Johnson. "We want to play and then get out of here. Win the gold and get back and enjoy our summer."

"It's been a long month. Part of it is you expect to play against great competition. That makes the situation so much more exciting. I'm taking nothing away from these teams but that hasn't been the case. We haven't been challenged and we're fighting a ghost (of the Dream Team ). . . . That's not what it's all about."

Notes

Croatia had been considered a lock for the silver medal and seemed a certain finalist when Russia's top player, Andrei Fetisov, a second-round pick in the recent NBA draft, injured his right ankle 3 1/2 minutes into the game and never returned. Croatia's Dino Radja (Boston Celtics) had 16 points and 14 rebounds, but was just 4-for-16 from the field. Toni Kukoc (Chicago Bulls) finished with five points and was 2-for-8 from the field with two assists, his lowest total of the tournament. . . . Augusto Duquesne, 24, became the second Cuban player to defect, slipping out of his downtown hotel and into a getaway van, joining star player Richard Matienzo, 25, who had pulled a similar escape the day before, the Toronto Star reported. . . . The Portland Trail Blazers have submitted a bid to host the event, likely in 2002.

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