LeBron James collected the ball on the bounce after the opening tip-off and, in one motion, fired a 40-foot pass to Carmelo Anthony. Anthony made the layup for the first points of the game. Three seconds gone, 2-0 the score and the rout was on. Team USA cruised from there, laying down a 106-57 win over Germany to close out group play in the Olympics men's basketball tournament undefeated.
There are plenty of reasons to be happy with the whipping Team USA delivered on Monday. Dwight Howard had his best game of the tournament so far, looking strong in the middle as he put up 22 points and 10 rebounds. The U.S. was 11-of-26 on 3-point attempts, continuing the solid long-range shooting they finally founds against Spain. And, most importantly, the Americans continue to play better basketball each time out -- a key in the loser-goes-home phase of the tournament that's up next. Team USA's margin of victory is an astounding 32.2 points, by far the largest in the Olympics.
But let's finish off group play the way we started it eight days ago after the U.S. win over China: In praise of LeBron. While Howard has been a big factor in the middle, Dwyane Wade's theatrics of the bench have been jaw-dropping, Chris Paul and Deron Williams have been relentless -- and plenty of other things have gone right for this bunch -- the success of Team USA in the preliminary round revolved around LeBron James, who is proving to be the best player in international basketball.
He's the leader. He's the one whose voice is heard when a teammate commits a defensive breakdown. There's a sense on this team that you don't want to disappoint James. "He's definitely the vocal leader of our team, the guy that brings energy every day," Williams said. "Not just [on the court]. You don't see the stuff behind the scenes. He's a great teammate, a great guy to have in the locker room and keeps us focused."
If this edition of Team USA is called an unselfish bunch, that's because James is so unselfish. If it's called a tough, focused defensive team, that's because James is so tough and focused. If he's aggressive, they're aggressive. "We know when he's aggressive it puts the rest of us in an aggressive mode," Paul said. "He's the one starting out who really gets us going. When he picks it up, everyone usually follows."
It's chuckle-worthy that, in the pre-Olympic exhibition games, coach/analyst Fran Fraschilla called Anthony the best international player in the world. It's obvious where Fraschilla was coming from. Anthony can shoot from the perimeter, score inside and has the size to be an international power forward. But if we've learned anything from Team USA's first five games of these Olympics, it's that the all-around ability and consistency of James -- at both ends of the floor, whether dunking or passing or rebounding or stepping into the passing lanes -- makes him, by far, the world's best international player.
Team USA's outside shooting has been inconsistent. Its rebounding and free-throw shooting only so-so. Kobe Bryant has struggled with his shot. But the team has gotten incredible play from James, every night. Just peek at the Olympic stat leaders. James ranks in the Top 10 in scoring, at 15.8 per game, despite taking just 10.2 shots per game. He is fifth in assists (4.4) and third in assist-to-turnover ratio. He's tied for fourth in blocks (1.4) and tied for third in steals (2.4). He's got just about every category covered. One exception? Minutes. He's tied for 34th there, which makes his presence all over the leaderboards even more impressive.
"This is what he's been dreaming of, to get the chance to play in the Olympics, go out there and lead a team, and he's doing a great job of that," Howard said. "He's been very consistent every night on the defensive end and on the offensive end. I really appreciate the way he leads the team. He makes everybody around him better."
Put all of that together -- offense, defense, consistency, leadership -- and Howard's right. James is doing a great job. He's doing the best job in the world, in fact.