LONDON – LeBron James certainly didn’t look like a worried man.
Moments after leaving the floor victorious in an as-close-as-it looks 99-94 win over Lithuania Saturday at the Olympic Basketball Arena, a relaxed James seemed almost relieved that he and the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team were put to the test sooner rather than later.
“I love the competition,” he said. “The best teams want to be tested. And I think we have some of the greatest competitors in our league [NBA] and in this world. So you want to have a game where you feel like you are tested and we had that today.”
As fun as winning by 52.3 points a night and breaking scoring and 3-point shooting records can be, it’s fun to be in the pressure cooker now and then. And no one knows pressure like James, whose muscle memory from leading the Miami Heat in The Finals worked flawlessly.
James led a 17-10 closing run, after the U.S. trailed twice in the final six minutes and 44 seconds of the game, taking over the game without really announcing as much as he was doing it.
“For LeBron to say, ‘look, I got this. I’m doing this,’” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said before being interrupted mid-sentence and asked if those were the words that came out James’ mouth. “Some people talk with their bodies and their actions and I think he did that. Basically, he did that because he wouldn’t give the ball up out on top. I think with his actions he was kind of saying that.”
The U.S. needed it. Two days after a record-setting performance in a 156-73 rout of Nigeria, Lithuania proved that this U.S. Team, while breathtaking when they are making nearly every shot they put up, is susceptible to the same failings as any confident group when they stray from their principles.
Unable to connect at a record rate from deep this time around (they went from a 29-for-46 showing Thursday night to a much more human 10-for-33 effort), the U.S. seemed to let their struggles on offense spill over into their work on the other end of the floor. Lithuania executed its offense to perfection, dared the U.S. to shoot over the tops of their outstretched hands on defense and refused to allow the fast-break showcase everyone saw against Nigeria an encore performance against a program that owns three Olympic bronze medals.
“For us, as competitors, we want to have a test game,” James said after leading the U.S. with 20 points, tying Carmelo Anthony for team-high honors. “Any team can be beat in this tournament if you don’t come out and prepare the right way and play the right way. And Lithuania gave us a great game. I don’t think we were flat or anything. We just played a better, first of all. A well-coached team and a team that’s been in the Olympics, time after time after time. They’re not afraid of the light. So it’s not about us being flat.”
And it wasn’t about the U.S. still daydreaming about the 3-point parade they enjoyed against Nigeria and trying to relive that moment.
“The last game we made history,” James said. “But that’s why it’s called history. It’s over with. Today was a new game. And we know in order for us to win we have to defend, we have to rebound and we have to share the ball offensively. And we know if we do that we give ourselves a good chance to win.”
They needed every bit of what James could give them on this day. With Lithuania’s key players — Linas Kleiza (game-high 25 points), Martynas Pocius (14, seven rebounds and six assists), Darius Songaila (11 points) and Sarunas Jasikevicius (eight points and six assists) — clicking with the game on the line late, the U.S. needed some scoring help from James.
He scored 14 of his points after halftime, nine in the final four minutes — and that includes a 3-pointer, and three driving layups — that preserved the U.S. Team’s unblemished record (4-0) here and order in the basketball world on what was billed as Super Saturday here at the Olympics, where 21 gold medals were to be rewarded on the busiest day of the Summer Games.
“I just felt it was a little like my time to step up offensively,” James said. “I’ve been kind of doing everything else, which I’m okay with. I’m here to do all of the little things, do whatever this team needs, whatever for the team, from Coach K’s perspective. But like I told you guys, I can also score some. And I’m blessed and happy to make some buckets down the stretch.”
The U.S. Team had to be happy to have the NBA’s reigning regular season and Finals MVP on their side with the elimination rounds of this competition on the horizon.
They have walked the tightrope between history (Thursday) and infamy in their last two games. Monday’s tilt against Argentina holds the promise of even more drama, if Manu Ginobili and his crew can muster a similar performance to the one Lithuania gave.
“You can’t win them all by 30,” said Deron Williams, whose 3-point dagger on a sweet dime from Chris Paul with 2:46 to play helped end the Lithuanian threat. “This shows us we can win close games. This is a good win for us. Lithuania is a tough team, We knew that coming in and we never overlooked this team once. We know they’ve been together for years, they know how to play and give them credit, they executed well.”
Paul echoed the sentiment, insisting that the game was less about what the U.S. did wrong and much more about how good Lithuania is how sound their system has always been.
“Give them credit for executing their offense,” Paul said. “That was definitely the toughest game we’ve have since we’ve been here.”
As much as this team learns about itself during the good times, they might learn even more when things get a bit sticky. If nothing else, the U.S. learned that they can lean on James, if need be.
“This was a good for us,” Williams said. “Nothing really went our way all game, but the last couple of minutes we hunkered down, LeBron took over, we got some stops and we got the win. These are the types of games you have to win at some point and it’s good we got it out of the way now.”