LONDON (AP) — It’s a collection of superstars with MVP trophies, scoring titles and all sorts of impressive statistics. And it wasn’t until the U.S. men’s basketball team was finally challenged that it found its leader.
Lithuania was on the verge of an Olympic-sized upset when LeBron James made four big baskets in the final four minutes Saturday, finishing with 20 points in a 99-94 victory that kept the Americans unbeaten but cracked their aura of invincibility.
There’s one player who has done everything for the star-studded United States. Not surprisingly, it’s the NBA MVP.
Through three games, James did little things that went unnoticed — played center, ignited runs and deferred to his teammates — as the Americans cruised to easy wins. James had more time to rest than shoot.
Eventually a close game came, and James seized it.
“He’s more important than me,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said recently.
More than any of his teammates, either.
James did it all for the Miami Heat during the playoffs and now is taking on the same responsibility for the Americans.
Guard the opposing center? Fine.
Pass the ball to the open shooters? No problem.
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“I’m not sure there’s ever been an international player like LeBron,” Krzyzewski said. “LeBron can actually play and defend all five positions, he’s incredibly unique. It’s really a luxury to have him.”
Being a willing defender or passer is great, and James is one of the best in the world at both. A team going for a gold medal sometimes needs more, and James couldn’t wait to provide it.
“I’ve been kind of doing everything else, which I’m OK with,” James said. “I’m here to do all the little things, do whatever this team needs, especially from Coach K’s perspective, but like I told you guys, I can also score. I’m blessed and happy that I was able to make a few buckets down the stretch.”
James came in averaging just 6.7 points, content to let Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant handle the scoring load. Besides, he had other things to do, such as occasionally defend post players whenever Tyson Chandler, the only center on the U.S. roster, was out of the game.
James was averaging 5.7 assists, tops on the team. But in jeopardy of losing in the Olympics for the first time in eight years, he kept the ball for himself.
The Americans’ lead was one before he made a 3-pointer, then dunked after a turnover for a 92-86 advantage with 3:41 to play. He made two more baskets in the final 2:10, giving him nine of the Americans’ final 12 points.
And to think, people question his play in the clutch.
“For those people who say he doesn’t produce at the end of ballgames, for us he’s produced always at the end of the ballgame,” Krzyzewski said. “He was terrific, really made plays that needed to be made both offensively and defensively in the last three minutes and you can’t practice those situations. You can put them up on the scoreboard, but it’s not the same game pressure and to see him respond like that in this setting, that’s one of the great positives from the game.”
The U.S. (4-0) had looked nearly unbeatable in thrashing Nigeria 156-73 on Thursday night while breaking several records. But the Americans were reminded that the path to a gold medal is loaded with traps and Lithuania nearly sprang one.
“You want to get tested,” James said. “The best teams want to be tested.”
James hadn’t really done much scoring since the Americans left the United States. In one of the only other times they’ve been challenged in recent years, they trailed by 10 points against Brazil before James brought them back, scoring 30 points in an 80-69 exhibition victory in Washington.
An international rookie when the U.S. lost to Lithuania eight years ago, James is now the best player in the game, and now an NBA champion with the stature that makes him the guy players will follow. On Saturday, they needed more than leadership — they needed saving.
James knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and after Chris Paul stole the inbounds pass, James took a feed down the right side and delivered one of his trademark dunks, a basket that brought the American players off the bench and seemed to restore world basketball order.
Lithuania had lost to Nigeria last month in a qualifying tournament, but that hardly mattered once the ball went in the air.
“It’s always a great game when we play against Lithuania,” Paul said. “We knew this was gonna be a dog fight and those guys played an unbelievable, unbelievable game.”
James had been seeking one, never quite comfortable with all those easy blowouts after playing so many games that mattered this spring.
“We love the competition,” he said. “I think we’ve got some of the greatest competitors in our league, in this world, so you want to have a game where you feel like you were tested, and we had that today.”
Luckily for the Americans, they know they have James to pull it out.