Commentary

Once again, LeBron answers the call

James leads USA past Australia in quarterfinals with his first Olympic triple-double

Originally Published: August 8, 2012
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LONDON -- Anthony Davis doesn't get many minutes or questions on this summer internship with the starriest band of ballers on the planet, but he handles them both well when they do come. Like when someone asked the teenager about the head-spinning year he's having.

If you can add a gold medal to your national championship at Kentucky and your selection as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, did you have the best year in basketball?

"LeBron," Davis shot back.

Once again, LeBron James is the answer. He's the only answer to the question: Who's having the best 2012 in the sport? One more time at these Olympics, James was the counter to the latest sluggish spells that saw Team USA give away almost all of a 14-point halftime lead in a matter of seconds to a scrappy but starless squad from Australia whose only player on the Americans' level -- Andrew Bogut -- is back home recovering from ankle surgery.

With the first triple-double that anyone in the FIBA realm could remember, James made sure that Team USA survived its ongoing focus and size issues, thereby inching within two more wins of becoming just the second player ever to win the NBA championship, NBA MVP trophy and a gold medal in the same calendar year, something only Michael Jeffrey Jordan has managed before him.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Emmanuel Dunand/Getty ImagesAgainst Australia, LeBron James totaled the first triple-double by an American in Olympic history.

With his 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists in this eventual 119-86 runaway against the Aussies, James brought some beauty to the building to mask the ugly scenes hours earlier in the Spain-France game, lowlighted by Nicolas Batum's indefensible punch to Juan Carlos Navarro's groin and the back-and-forth accusations later between the longtime European rivals about flopping and tanking.

With that stuffed stat line, LeBron combined with Kobe Bryant's six-pack of 3-pointers in the second half to set Americans up for the trifecta they truly covet: A third win over Argentina in a span of just 17 days when the teams meet in Friday night's Olympic semifinals here at the O2 Arena.

"Freak of nature," Team USA guard Chris Paul said this week. "He's, what, six or seven inches taller than me and maybe 60 pounds [heavier] than me. And he can do everything I can do with the ball. Almost."

Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, furthermore, has been calling James his "quarterback of the defense." Yet they're going to need even more out of LeBron from here, even if Bryant did indeed "activate the Black Mamba," as only Kobe can put it, by responding to a scoreless first half with a memorable flurry of four 3s in less than 70 seconds of the fourth quarter to finally put stubborn Australia away.

James' emergence as the undeniable driving force of this group means it's on him, first and foremost, to lead the fight against complacency -- what some might call arrogance -- that makes Team USA vulnerable against a team as accomplished as Argentina's proven champions. Or in Sunday's gold-medal decider against the Spain-Russia semifinal survivor.

The Yanks didn't defend with the needed vigor for long stretches of this quarterfinal game, didn't show any lasting hunger to try to snuff out Patty Mills (26 points) or NBA prospect Joe Ingles (19) in the tournament of their lives and didn't get punished only because -- as mentioned a time or two in recent days -- LeBron & Co. eventually erupt to such a potent degree that they can gloss over all their ills.

"Teams tend to stick around when we coast," Carmelo Anthony acknowledged. "We need to go full throttle."

And that has to be a legit worry for Krzyzewski given who's up next. Against the same group of hardened Argentineans who conquered the Americans twice in the early 2000s and thus shamed USA Basketball into the totally revamped program Jerry Colangelo and Coach K now spearhead, Team USA would be taking an undeniable risk if its dares to do any coasting.

You know what they say about trying to beat the same team three times in a row.

As helpless as Argentina looked and sounded Monday night after Team USA detonated in the third quarter of the teams' final game in Group A, it seems safe to presume that Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola & Friends will not go so quietly for the third time in slightly more than two weeks against North America's global superstars.

"Please ask me again in 24 hours," Ginobili said after Argentina's 82-77 victory over Brazil and former coaching mentor Ruben Magnano, "because I just want to enjoy this moment before I think about the USA."

Aussie legend Andrew Gaze could identify with Manu's plea. In the buildup to Wednesday night, taking a break from his Olympic work on Australian TV, Gaze initially said he was sure that this new generation of Boomers would "not be going out there to get autographs." He urged Mills, Ingles and the others to block out visions of "these athletic gazelles running up and down" and take heart from Lithuania's near-upset in pool play.

Yet within seconds, he caught himself, admitting that even for someone as seasoned as Gaze -- who made five trips to the Olympics as a player from 1984 through 2000 -- following his own instructions about treating the NBA rock stars "as equals" wouldn't exactly be easy.

"I don't care who you are," Gaze admitted. "When you see Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, not to be over-awed is very, very difficult."

Especially on a night like this. Assists have been kept as an official stat in the Olympics only since 1976, but James was thus credited with the first Olympic triple-double in USAB history. And Bryant, in Krzyzewski's words, "really broke out of his scoring slump" with those six second-half 3s.

It wasn't a bad evening for Coach K, either. He raved before and afterward the Aussies' man-to-man schemes, calling it "best in the tournament" stuff, but that didn't come close to stopping Team USA from nudging Coach K's record to 60-1 since he took the job in 2005. In his four major tournaments, Krzyzewski is 31-1, compared to Team USA's 11-6 mark at the 2002 Worlds and 2004 Olympics before he took over.

"He's the best basketball player in the world right now," Krzyzewski said, bringing the discussion back to LeBron. "And he showed that tonight."

Now to see if the modern game's most likely triple-double threat can point the way to win No. 3 of the summer over the proud, stubborn thirtysomethings who just eliminated a big-up-front Brazil squad that USAB officials have fretted about for months.

"We shall see," Anthony said. "That's why they play the games."

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