When the 2008 men's Olympic basketball team - the "Redeem Team" - set out to reclaim the gold medal in Beijing, many pundits pondered who would take the crucial shots in a close game. Team USA got the close contest in the gold medal game against Spain, only leading 104-99 with 3:34 left to go. Dwyane Wade found Kobe Bryant for a four-point play, but Spain subsequently cut the deficit to 108-104 with two-and-a-half minutes left. On Team USA's ensuing possession, LeBron James assisted on a Wade 3-pointer that dashed all of Spain's hopes to pull of the upset.
Bryant and Wade stood as the only NBA champions in the Olympic rotation (Tayshaun Prince was also on the Redeem Team, but didn't play much). Four years later, Team USA found itself in an unexpectedly close game against Lithuania. But this time, only one NBA champion made the clutch baskets to keep the opponent at bay. And it wasn't Kobe Bryant.
It wasn't too long ago that some people felt that James' late passes in the All-Star Game and a regular-season game against the Utah Jazz signaled that he just doesn't have the so-called "clutch gene." During the fourth quarter of the USA/Lithuania game, the Sun-Sentinel's Ira Winderman even tweeted that James conjured up memories of his sub-par 2011 NBA Finals performance with his play. The three-time MVP put any of those notions to rest shortly thereafter.
Reminiscent of his crucial 3-pointer in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals after suffering cramps, James started his late-game assault with a triple from the top of the key to extend a tenuous 87-86 lead. Chris Paul then knocked the ball away from a Lithuanian player, and James raced down the floor for a dunk to give Team USA a 92-86 advantage. On the next couple trips down the floor, James wanted the top of the key all to himself. Bryant, Paul and Kevin Durant obliged, giving James the room to make a spin move for a scoop shot and later a running banker.
The reigning winner of the regular-season and Finals MVP awards scored nine points in the final four minutes of the USA/Lithuania game. Team USA trailed by two with under six minutes left to go, and James' clutch scoring secured the win. Despite the fact that the Olympic basketball tournament has not yet entered into the medal rounds - when losing teams are automatically disqualified from competing for the gold - a U.S. loss would have led to media members launching a torrent of discussion about comparisons with the 1992 Dream Team, the make-up of this team and its heavy reliance on small ball. Because of LeBron James, we don't have to engage in those conversations.
James' muscle memory apparently served him well in Saturday's game. The Miami Heat would have faced a similar torrent of criticism if the team didn't win in Game 4 against the Indiana Pacers or Game 6 against the Boston Celtics. Media members had already labeled the Big 3 blueprint as a failure. But because of James, we didn't have those discussions. Some things just don't change with time.