Commentary

LeBron shines against Turkey, morphs into FIBA player

Originally Published: July 31, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesStu Forster/Getty ImagesLeBron scored 20 points against Turkey. More importantly, he showed his command of FIBA rules.
MACAU -- Five seconds into the game, LeBron James pulled off a defensive move that was four years in the making.

Turkey controlled the opening tip of Thursday's exhibition game -- Team USA's first match on foreign soil since the summer of 2006 -- and Ersan Ilyasova went straight to the basket and put up a soft shot that bounced off the rim and was headed straight through the hoop.

It appeared it was about to be 2-0 deficit for the United States, but that wasn't to be.

The reason?

James timed his leap perfectly and snatched the ball right as it was entering the cylinder -- a goaltending violation in the NBA, but not under FIBA rules, in which the ball is fair game once it hits the rim.

"Even some of the guys on Turkey were calling for a goaltend, but it was legal," James said. "I've been playing FIBA ball for four years now, so I kind of know the rules."

Not only was it legal, it was a sign of things to come as James set the tone for what turned into a dominant performance -- not only by him, but by his teammates, too -- in a 114-82 victory in which James shot 8-for-9 and scored a team-high 20 points in just 22½ minutes.

After taking the ball out of the hoop, James went coast-to-coast and dropped in a bank shot, a play that was followed by a Kobe Bryant steal leading to a Carmelo Anthony 3-pointer, then a block by Dwight Howard that left the Turks wearing demoralized faces less than a minute into the game.

American players have historically had trouble adjusting to the FIBA rule that allows defensive players to swat the ball off the rim once it has touched the cylinder because their muscle memories are so conditioned to leave the ball alone. James, however, made it look as though he'd been making that play all his life.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
MN Chan/Getty ImagesLeBron did some pretty impressive stuff on the offensive end, too.

"I was getting back to get in rebound position, but once I saw it hit the rim and saw I had a chance to go get it, I just used my reaction time," said James, who was held out of the Americans' pre-Olympic opener against Canada last week in Las Vegas with a sprained ankle.

As was the case against Canada, the Americans made their mark in the second quarter against Turkey, which played them fairly even over the first 10 minutes -- even taking a 27-24 lead late in a first period that ended with the Americans holding just a 31-30 lead.

But the second quarter was a different story, with the Americans' quickness and depth becoming too much for the Turks to handle. Team USA's traps repeatedly led to turnovers, and James put back his own miss off a steal to give the Americans their first double-digit lead, 47-37.

On Turkey's next possession, James ripped the ball out of Engin Atsur's hands and was immediately hacked, a clear path foul (in FIBA, they call it an "unsportsmanlike foul") that gave James two free throws and allowed the Americans to retain possession.

Team USA forced turnovers on five of six possessions during one second-quarter stretch en route to opening a 54-37 halftime lead, outscoring Turkey 23-7 in the quarter to take command for good. The Americans shot 64 percent in the first half (on 2-pointers, they shot 71 percent in the first half and 78 percent for the game) and scored 23 points off turnovers, and Turkey was unable to mount any kind of a rally over the final 20 minutes.

"They had great technique, great effort, and defensively they were much better than the World Championship team of two years ago, and they are definitely in better shape than they were two years ago, and they use a team system -- not a star system," said Turkish coach Bogdan Tanjevic, who held Hedo Turkoglu out of the game because of an injury but said he plans to use him in Turkey's next game against Lithuania.

Lithuania is also the next opponent for the Americans, on Friday (8 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com), providing Team USA with a much tougher test of whether it can impose its will and style of play against an opponent much more seasoned than Turkey. Turkey had a disastrous EuroBasket last summer and failed to qualify for the Olympics.

It'll be the only time this summer that the Americans play on back-to-back nights, and they may finally get to see someone throw a zone defense at them for more than a few possessions after Canada and Turkey both played them straight up for all but a few brief moments.

Then again, Lithuania may not want to show its cards in a game that's more or less meaningless, and it'd happily walk away with a 32-point loss of its own if it felt it might give the Americans an inflated sense of self-confidence heading into Beijing.

"Speed and quickness are our best assets, and it'll be a question of can we do our best things better than they can do theirs? That'll be the story of all our games," said coach Mike Krzyzewski, who sat alongside James at the post-game news conference. (We'd be remiss if we didn't mention that James wore a red-brimmed New York Yankees hat to the press conference, placing it on the table in front of him before the questions began. "I got it in New York City," he told ESPN.com.)

For now, the Americans are feeling super positive as they near the end of their second week together, with one of the more surprising aspects being how James has assumed a leadership role on a team in which he is still one of the youngest players.

James mentioned afterward how the Americans are beginning to come to grips with the fact that they aren't going to be able to put anybody away in the first quarter but should be able to use the second and third quarters to steadily pull ahead.

That's what got the job done for them against Turkey, but it all started when James practically reached into the net to snatch away the first shot attempt of the game -- a FIBA play by a guy who is showing how much he has turned into a FIBA player over the course of the past four years.

Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.