Fowler: LeBron James will lead U.S. to basketball gold

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comAugust 8, 2012 

— The U.S. men’s basketball team Mike Krzyzewski is coaching in these Olympics boasts a dazzling array of talent.

But there is one crown jewel that shines above all others – the player who is going to will this American team to victory, one way or the other.

You know who he is: LeBron James.

Take him off the U.S. team, and I really think it could lose.

But King James isn’t going anywhere, and he will be the primary reason that the U.S. players will have gold medals draped around their necks on Sunday.

Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony may score more. Chris Paul may get more assists. But King James is the undisputed leader of this squad, which continues play with a quarterfinal game vs. Australia on Wednesday (5:15 p.m. Eastern).

James is the team’s soundtrack in practices, and on defense, his deep voice alternately breaking up his teammates in laughter and calling out commands.

On offense, he is often content to pass the ball to get his teammates going. But for the past two games, against Lithuania and Argentina, you could see him decide when it was time to take over.

“Man, he’s special,” Paul said of James. “He’s 7 or 8 inches taller than me. He probably weighs 60 pounds more than me. And he can do everything I can do with the ball – almost.”

Against Lithuania, a team that actually led the U.S. in the fourth quarter, James started getting the ball at the top of the key and simply clearing his teammates away.

Said Krzyzewski later: “LeBron just said, ‘Look, I got it. I’m doing this.’ He basically wouldn’t give the ball up.”

Because James is generally so unselfish with the ball, his teammates are happy when he turns selfish. Krzyzewski asked his best player to do so again against Argentina, which trailed the U.S. only 60-59 at halftime.

Coach K used his trump card at the beginning of the third quarter, telling James to start lining up in the post on offense.

James scored the first seven points for the U.S., but even more important was his defensive contribution. “LeBron is kind of our quarterback on defense with his voice,” Krzyzewski said. “He was all over the place defensively. His play on the defensive end was magnificent.”

The U.S. outscored Argentina 42-17 in that third quarter and turned a close game into a 29-point win.

I’d agree with Larry Bird, who has said that LeBron is the best player in the NBA and no one else is really that close. Now that James has led the Miami Heat to its second NBA championship, those old questions about why James doesn’t come through in the fourth quarter seem as dated as dial-up Internet.

“For those people who say he doesn’t produce at the end of ballgames,” Coach K said, shaking his head. “For us, he’s always produced at the end of ballgames.”

James has left his opponents in this tournament shaking their heads, too. Said Argentina guard Manu Ginobili of the U.S.: “They have a very unusual lineup. LeBron can play every position, but they will play him at the ‘5’ (center position) sometimes. And believe it or not… he is stronger and taller than our ‘5.’ ”

James continues to insist that the U.S. could be defeated. “We’re very beatable,” he said after the Americans moved to 5-0 in the tournament. “We’re not unbeatable.”

And that is true, technically. If James sustains an injury – or if the U.S. goes 3-for-25 one night on the three-pointers they love to take – it’s possible.

But even on this team of stars, James is the sun. The other players orbit around him.

Durant and Paul, while all-stars in their own right, defer to him. Carmelo counts on James to get him the ball. Kobe, while also inherently an alpha male, also recognizes that this time around it is LeBron’s team.

And I just don’t see LeBron letting the U.S. lose.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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