What Summer Olympics Success Would Mean for LeBron James

Dan GigliottiCorrespondent IAugust 6, 2012

LeBron James carried the U.S.A. Men’s Olympic basketball team on his shoulders in the fourth quarter of a surprisingly close win against Lithuania on Friday night.

Down 82-80, James rallied his 11 teammates, demanding the ball and cutting through the pressure to see the US to a 99-94 victory to remain 4-0 in the Olympic Games.

Wait, what am I saying? LeBron James demanded the ball? Carried his team? Down the stretch? Maybe that last Sam Adams was one too many.

“He just wanted the ball and wanted to make the play, whether it was his individual play or finding a teammate,” U.S. men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a TV interview with David Aldridge.

Something doesn’t seem right here. Is this the same James who avoids taking pressure shots and defers to his teammates in clutch situations?

Krzyzewski went on to say that there was substantial “game pressure” when LeBron scored nine of the final 17 points to rally the U.S. from a late deficit in Friday’s game.

Losing by two points with just under seven minutes remaining against a team that no one believes is a real contender for a gold medal was reason for the U.S. team roster to sweat a little more than they already were. Because they were so heavily favored (34.5-point favorites, according to USA Today), they faced more pressure than a Lithuania team that could take a moral victory away from being in a position to win late in the game, despite the loss.

Still, I doubt that anyone truly believed the U.S. would let that game slip away from them. What I found hard to believe is that head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that James was compelled to carry his team down the stretch.

Realistically, the U.S. team wins Friday’s game without LeBron James. There are too many players who have played in and thrived in high-pressure situations in games of paramount importance to have allowed a victory to evade them. Because the U.S. has so many other capable players, any potential on-court mistake James makes can be masked by the support of his teammates, who each would be starting players on the roster of any other squad in the Olympic games. That is low pressure.

Through the initial four games of the 2012 Olympic Games, James' performance has been modest statistically. Though a player is bound to see reduced numbers on their stat line when engaging in international play (due to more competitive opponents, different schemes and a lavish roster of talent), James’ numbers are still quite low considering he is widely known to be the best player in the world.

He is fifth on the U.S. squad with 10 points per game in nearly 23 minutes of play, with 3.5 rebounds per game and 4.5 assists. He has shot over 62 percent from the field, including 75 percent from inside the three-point arc, but it is difficult to say that he has excelled during these games. Even in Friday’s game, James scored 20 points and pulled down nine boards with no assists.

If anything, James’ numbers provide insight into how little each player is to the team aspect of international play. Unlike a typical NBA game in which one player can dominate portions of the game by hogging possession of the ball and out-dueling defenders one-on-one, the international game puts a premium on generating offense through patience and passing.

For James to make an impact on a game enough for it to matter, he must do it late in the game when it counts. No easy task when you consider how much he has struggled during pressure situations in the past.

For the initial eight years of his NBA career, James has been chastised by fans and media members alike lauding his sporadic play during critical moments. James' performance in the fourth quarters of meaningful games had been like the slow song in a grade school dance when you decide to take a bathroom break instead of having the balls to ask the cute girl that you have been secretly gawking at every day in class for the entire year to shuffle in a circle with while some KC & JoJo song played.

Not that I’m speaking from experience.

James silenced most of his detractors during the 2012 NBA Playoffs by leading the Miami Heat to a second-consecutive Finals appearance and winning what, for him, was a long-awaited NBA Championship. James’ performances became more impressive as the stakes got higher during each successive round of the playoffs.

The three-time MVP went on a tear beginning with one of the greatest playoff performances in the history of the sport in a must-win Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, registering an ungodly 45 points, 15 rebounds and five points in a 98-79 drudging of the Boston Celtics.

Mind you, that historic performance took place against the same team that he played perhaps the most humiliating performance of his career two long years earlier. He shot 3-14 in Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals during the worst home loss in Cleveland Cavalier franchise history (120-88).

In nearly the same scenario, as he was outdone in Games 6 of that series by a group of players being viewed as old veterans incapable of making another championship run, James played in this year’s Game 6 with a menace unseen from him before, mugging a stone-faced look more common to a roman gladiator than a basketball player.

It certainly made NBA fans question whether or not this was the same man who was seen playing with a diaper and a pacifier throughout his most tested games in Cleveland and in his first year with the Miami Heat.

Then, in the 2012 NBA Finals, when the play of an injury-stricken Dwayne Wade was compromised throughout the series, James proved definitively that he deserved his first ring and an NBA MVP trophy by averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists—and ending the series with a triple-double.

Even if NBA observers note the stellar shooting of Shane Battier through the first three games of the Finals and credit Mike Miller with making seven treys in the clinching game, James undoubtedly carried the Heat to a championship.

To say that the supporting cast he is playing with on the U.S. Olympic team is great is like saying that Danny Ferry has an unusually large head. It is important to note his teammates in this case. But, because there are players who can be relied upon to carry the Olympic squad in the clutch, James could choose to recede to his former self and defer to his teammates. But he hasn’t.

That James made the decision to take control of Friday’s game against Lithuania is a sign that he is more willing to embrace these pressure situations. Take Krzyzewski’s comments in an interview with ESPN following the Lithuania game when he said, “LeBron took over. I mean, I don’t know, all those people who say he doesn’t do things down in the stretch, but he’s been magnificent for us. I mean, he’s a champion and really kind of showed us the way there at the end.”

Prior to Games 6 of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, when was the last time you heard someone with any knowledge of basketball say that James “took over” or “wanted the ball?”

Krzyzewski went on to say that he liked the play of his entire team down the stretch. Let’s face it, barring some catastrophic meltdown, the U.S.A. will win gold in this Olympics because they are the far superior team. For James, moments like the final seven minutes against Lithuania should serve as a simulation of the same situations he is certain to face in the coming years when he’s making playoff runs for his fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rings (I mean, that’s what he guaranteed, right?).

In the last two months, James is demonstrating a new willingness to embrace his moniker of “King” and actually live up to it—not as main facilitator in clutch time, but as the cold-blooded scorer that everyone thought he would have developed into when he came into the league.

Regardless of how dazzling he may be through the rest of the Olympics, he will still be the single most utterly despised player in the eyes of the most ruthless, uncompromising, resentful fans in sports.

Sorry, I went Bill Walton on you there with the hyperbole. Couldn’t help it. If it makes you feel better, I just got sidetracked by watching 30 minutes of the greatest, most profound, most astoundingly comedic moments in the illustrious history of sports broadcasting, which included a clip of Walton banging a drum with a small mallet wearing a tie-dye Grateful Dead Sacramento Kings t-shirt during a congo line led by Mickey Hart. He is such a hippie.

According to Mark Stein James’ dunk nearing the resolution of Friday's game “restored world basketball order.” While I wish I can say that this summer’s Olympics can change the mind of the collective NBA fan consciousness about James‘ worth as a superstar athlete, I can only say that this tournament has the potential to add more confidence and gusto to the reigning NBA regular season and Finals MVP, beginning with today's game against Argentina.

That is a scary thing to think about.