LeBron James has kept the U.S. team from melting down to some surprising opponents.
LONDON - Even if the U.S. men's basketball team cruises to another gold medal, the chronology of the Olympics demands a new dynamic every four years, however predictable the result.
In Beijing, the most talented All-Star basketball team in the world deferred to Kobe Bryant in big moments. In London, two new players are emerging as the team's clutch scorers.
One is Kevin Durant, the world's most gifted offensive player.
One is the ring-wearing version of LeBron James, the world's best basketball player.
When Lithuania took a fourth-quarter lead against the U.S. on Saturday, James blew the game open with a three-pointer, a dunk and a spinning shot in the lane.
When Argentina hung close at halftime on Monday, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski asked James to "take over the game" in the third quarter, and he did.
In fact, James can take over in many ways. Monday, Krzyzewski played him in the post. James has completed 50-foot spinning bounce passes, shot the three-pointer and been a raging bull on the fast break. He may be the U.S. team's best passer, defender, floor-runner and finisher.
"I wanted to start the second half going to him in the post, and he responded," Krzyzewski said. "LeBron has been kind of our quarterback on defense. He was all over the place defensively, especially in the second and third quarters."
As quarterfinals in the Olympic tournament begin Wednesday with the U.S. facing Australia, Team USA has displayed flaws. They have only one polished, elite, interior defender (other than James), in Tyson Chandler, and he's foul-prone, especially in the international game. Lithuania drove to the basket at will and often finished.
They have so many effortless scorers, such as Durant and Carmelo Anthony, that they sometimes lapse into settling for outside shots, reducing games to shooting contests instead of emphasizing their strength -- superior athletes who can drive and create. They sometimes lack focus, and need to be challenged to play with intensity. Krzyzewski seems keen on reminding his players that they can be beaten.
"The main thing we all learned is how many good teams there are,'' Krzyzewski said. "In our pool, Lithuania almost beat us, [Argentina] was an unbelievably tough game and France is playing extremely well.
"I really think there's more competition here than in 2008. That's what I've learned. I think a number of teams can win the gold medal. ... We have the utmost respect for world basketball. There are just more good teams."
Coaches are prone to overstating the quality of their competition, but his point is accurate. Most Olympic teams rely on NBA players or even NBA stars. The U.S. retains a large talent advantage but no longer plays exclusively against teams that a group of American collegians could contend against.
The Americans have two trump cards in close games: Durant's ability to score at will, and James' leadership. The latter is a new development. James' ability to win an NBA title has moved him past Bryant as the best and most important American player.
That's why, in close games, Krzyzewski looks past all of his other stars, and asks James to take over the game.
Staff writer Rachel Blount contributed to this report.
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