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Mark Heisler ON OLYMPIC BASKETBALL

James, U.S. fill up on Turkey

August 01, 2008|Mark Heisler

MACAO -- All this and LeBron too?

Not that Canada wasn't already overmatched, but when the U.S. men's basketball team crunched our neighbors to the north by 55 points last week in the exhibition opener, the Americans did it without LeBron James.

After sitting out because of a sprained ankle -- and having to sit still for way too many questions about it -- James returned Thursday night as the U.S. began the Asian phase of its Olympic preparations, devouring Turkey, 114-82.

Making eight of nine shots, James scored 20 points with six rebounds, five steals and four assists.

Not that he looked impressive doing it, but if he ever needs a job, he just has to call Turkey Coach Bogdan Tanjevic.

"LeBron James can play forward, center and point guard," Tanjevic said. "He played one time 10 minutes like a center, playing against our center and we can't punish this so-called mismatch."

If only because of the 2004 team's pratfall in its first exhibition overseas, which presaged the debacle that awaited in Athens, Thursday's game bore watching, if briefly.

On the Americans' way to the Athens Olympics, Italy crushed them, 95-77, in Cologne, Germany. So even if the U.S. actually trailed, 27-24, late in the first quarter against Turkey, this was a lot less embarrassing than that.

"I think we realized we're not just going to blow a team out in the first quarter," James said. "We have to stay solid on defense and continue to wear a team down."

In other words, the U.S. players were as surprised as anyone to see Turkey, which isn't going to the Olympics and didn't have its two best players, Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, stay with them for a quarter.

Of course, it was the quarter of the overmatched Turks' lives.

"This was also because of the energy we expend in the first quarter to stay in the game with this so strong team," Tanjevic said of the second quarter, which the Americans closed with a 19-3 run.

In the good old days for U.S. basketball between the Dream Team in 1992 and Sydney in 2000 when the Americans went 24-0 with NBA players, the questions after games were always on the same theme:

Can anyone beat the U.S.?

The awe factor isn't what it was, but so far this team has impressed all who got in its way.

"I prefer this team than this team four years ago," Tanjevic said. "Better than the [2006] World Championship also. . . . Great unselfishness. Great effort on defense, much more better than two years at World Championship."

In 2006, another summer the U.S. basketball team would like to forget (third place, World Championships in Saitama, Japan), James was not only the Americans' best player but their de facto point guard and leader at 22.

With the arrival of Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant, James has veterans to look up to. Perhaps out of pure appreciation for all James has done -- he, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard are the only ones to play all of the last three summers -- Coach Mike Krzyzewski continually reminds everyone James is as much a leader as Kidd and Bryant.

"There's no question that one of the biggest things for us is LeBron's leadership," Krzyzewski said.

Perhaps because James inspires such awe -- who ever heard of someone who's 6 feet 8, 250 pounds with his hops? -- it's easy to forget he's still only 24 and is still getting over his own sense of awe.

"I've accepted a challenge to become a better leader, and I haven't been afraid to lead these guys," James said after the game.

"A lot of people can be afraid to walk into an arena and play with Kobe Bryant and play with Jason Kidd and play with Dwyane Wade and play with Dwight Howard and these guys, be afraid to tell them something if they're wrong or be afraid to lead them.

"But it's kind of like my nature. I feel it's more important to lead guys who are great than guys who are on my team, if you understand what I'm saying."

What he means is he doesn't just want to be the greatest player in Cleveland. The universe is more what he has in mind, by way of Beijing.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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