Commentary

LeBron, Team USA pass first test

James throws highlight assist, orchestrates easy win against France in opener

Originally Published: July 29, 2012
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Team USAMark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesTeam USA followed LeBron James' lead to an easy win in the first game of its gold-medal defense.
LONDON -- There was no clear-cut victim this time. No Frederic Weis on the receiving end to be frozen forever on a timeless poster.

How do you fit a 50-foot bounce pass into a single frame, anyway?

That's right: You can't. You can't print and sell a shot of what LeBron James did to the French here Sunday afternoon, something that lovers of the art of passing, true devotees of the dish, will put right up there with the unforgettable feat of athleticism that Vince Carter famously uncorked on the top of Weis' head when we last saw Les Bleus in the Olympic basketball tournament.

"It was amazing," Team USA center Tyson Chandler said.

Chandler should know because he had one of the best views here in the basketball hall at Olympic Park. With not even five minutes gone in the Americans' eventual 98-71 rout, Chandler rebounded Tony Parker's miss, shoveled the ball to James outside of the 3-point arc they were defending and watched LeBron fling it like a soccer throw-in to an in-stride Kevin Durant, who somehow anticipated the whole thing and had long since taken off on a sprint.

[+] EnlargeJames
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesJames, who had more assists (eight) than shot attempts (six), pointed USA in the right direction.

Durant caught the perfectly weighted skip pass just beyond the opposite free-throw line, left Parker and Boris Diaw in his wake and sailed in for a dunk to complete a sequence that Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers would have proudly claimed as one of their own.

Not that James himself was terribly impressed. He focused on defense and distribution in this Group A opener, racked up more assists (eight) than shot attempts (six), then quickly reverted to the same downplay mode that he's kept switched on for public consumption ever since Team USA got together in early July.

Good luck if you're looking for hints of the satisfaction, or heaven forbid vindication, that James must surely feel in the wake of his championship breakthrough with the Miami Heat. Good luck trying to convince him of the notion that the pressure, his personal burden, has been lessened now that he knows he'll be taking possession of an NBA ring in October.

"It's no different for me," James said the other day. "I can't lose, period. I'm in no different boat than if I was playing in the NBA."

But he's not complaining. Au contraire. For all the bashing he's endured for past failures to finish, for receding in the major moments, it has to be said that LeBron The Champ accepts and even welcomes the burden better than ever. No less an authority than five-ringed Team USA teammate Kobe Bryant says so, repeatedly praising James this month for his tone-setting.

"I've always been a do-this-or-else kind of guy," Bryant said of his own leadership approach, which he knows not everyone can stomach easily. "LeBron [as a leader] is more of a gatherer. More of a talker."

In Sunday's case, it was James and then Bryant who stepped up to drain two much-needed triples at the start of the second quarter after Team USA shot 0-for-6 on 3s in the first. French forward Nicolas Batum confessed afterward that he was hoping that the Americans might start to "panic" when Yannick Bokolo drained a 3 from the wing at the first-quarter buzzer to draw France within one at 22-21. But LeBron and Kobe wouldn't let it happen, sparking a game-turning run of 11 straight points that, combined with the Americans' usual smothering perimeter D, made things comfortable by halftime in spite of the early shooting struggles and foul trouble for seemingly the whole roster.

"Second quarter, it was 0-0 … new game for them," Batum said. "They started to defend us [and] make some big shots."

France coach Vincent Collet couldn't stifle his admiration for Team USA's ability to force turnovers and what he described as its ''best in the world'' hard closeouts on open shooters. Parker, meanwhile, managed just 10 points in 26 under-fire minutes and, after finally removing those goggles he so loathes, came away saying: "They're going to be very, very tough to beat."

They won't even be pushed until Saturday's group game against Lithuania at the earliest, thanks to upcoming gimmes Tuesday and Thursday against Tunisia and Nigeria. And by then, you suspect, Team USA will have adapted better to the FIBA refereeing that caused so much frustration against the French, as well as its first-half struggles to make shots in a new 12,000-seat building where the fans are too far away from the floor to provide the usual NBA-style backdrop.

"I don't think we had jitters," Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "These guys don't have jitters. I think there's an adjustment to the venue. Neither team was allowed to be in here more than an hour the last few days, so I think that will be an adjustment. [And] I think the way the game's administered was a little bit different than the five [exhibition] games we played. We learned from that."

Said Collet, sounding somewhat helpless as he reflected on France's 18 turnovers and 2-for-22 showing from the 3-point line: "They played the game they wanted to play."

LeBron especially. Happy to pass off the spotlight to Olympic debutants Durant (22 points and nine boards) and Kevin Love (14 points in 14 minutes), James lasered in on directing traffic. In just under 25 minutes, he came away with a modest but near-flawless nine points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals.

As well as one over-the-head, over-the-top bounce pass that covered too much hardwood, too quickly, for one snapshot.

"It wasn't perfect," James claimed, referring to the Americans' performance as a whole and ignoring his Magical moment.

"We've still got room for improvement. We had too many turnovers, too many fouls and we had a couple of defensive rebounds we could have come up with."

Said Chandler, happily supplying the appropriate reverence for LeBron's QB-ing: "Some of the things [James] does … it's hard to believe you can be his size and have his vision and still play the game as graceful as he does."

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics