James Is Just One of the Guys
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
LAS VEGAS, Aug. 28 -- Kobe Bryant was the first to track down LeBron James, elevating to chest bump the Cleveland Cavaliers star after he made a ridiculous, 40-foot bank shot at the end of the first half of the United States' 113-76 victory over Brazil on Sunday.
James howled and scowled. Then, one by one, James's teammates rushed to bump chests with him to celebrate the just-inside-of-half-court heave that gave the United States a 19-point lead and kept Brazil at bay.
A day later, the United States looked lethargic and uninterested at halftime against Mexico until James anointed himself "the energy man" and scored 16 points, including three three-pointers, in the first seven minutes of the third period to spark another lopsided victory in the FIBA Americas Championship.
James hasn't been asked to score much, only to fill the gaps in this Olympic qualifying tournament. No longer playing the role as "King" of the Cavaliers -- the team he led to the NBA Finals last June -- James is relishing being just another member of the court.
"Whatever they need from me," said James, who averaged 13.8 points, 5.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals in the first five games of this Olympic qualifying tournament. "This is about the team."
Before exploding for a combined 40 points against Brazil and Mexico, James was content crashing the boards and being the team's best playmaker not named Jason Kidd. "If my teammates need me to score, or if I sense they need me to score, I'll do that," he said. "I'm still going to rack up the rebounds and assists."
If the Americans need a stop, James is reading the passing lanes like a defensive back to get steals and get the team off and running on the break. He is breaking up lulls in action with electrifying, YouTube-worthy dunks or finding Bryant and Carmelo Anthony cutting to the basket for slams. And, the 6-foot-8 James even played extended minutes at power forward when Tayshaun Prince went down with an ankle injury and Anthony was in foul trouble early against Brazil.
"For me, it wasn't such a bad thing," said James, who claims that he has beefed up to 260 pounds since the San Antonio Spurs swept him out in the NBA Finals. "I'm used to playing big minutes and I put my body in good shape to do that."
With role players like this, who are the stars, again?
"Kobe, LeBron and a number of guys are saying, 'I'm willing to change my role from what it is on my current team to fit this team,' " U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It's called being unselfish.
"Our guys are only concerned about one score, the score on the scoreboard. You have two of the great players in the world in Kobe and LeBron and they're fine. They're fine. LeBron is more of a pass-first player anyway. You put him and Jason Kidd out on the court and you almost have two point guards, which is why our break is so good."
With the exception of surrendering 100 points against Mexico, the Americans' defense has been solid as well, holding opponents to just 36 percent shooting and 73.4 points through the first five games. Bryant has set much of the defensive tone by taking on the challenge of guarding the opposing team's best players, but James has been especially active on the defensive end, switching on picks and shouting out instructions. He also has a team-high nine steals.
"I want to try to be as aggressive as I can on the defensive end and that's one aspect of the game that I've gotten better at," James said. "Being a leader on the court, I'm going to let my game speak for itself but I'm going to go out there and try to help us communicate the best we can on defense."
James has two bronze medals in international competition, after third-place finishes in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the world championships last summer in Japan. He said he doesn't use those losses as motivation for winning a gold in Beijing next summer.
"It's not about making up [for the past], it's a new beginning for us," James said. "For me 2004 doesn't mean much. I was part of the team but I really wasn't part of the team. This is a new group of guys and we understand how important this is and we are going to come out and play hard and try to win. We always chant: '1, 2, 3, Dominate.' We know we can go out and play the game of basketball. We know we can beat anybody."