LONDON – LeBron James silenced stubborn Lithuania to lift the unbeaten US NBA Dream Team into the Olympic medal playoffs on Saturday while Russia edged Spain to secure a top seeding in next week’s quarter-finals.
James, seeking his second gold medal in his third Olympic appearance, scored nine of his 20 points in a 12-2 US run in the final minutes as the Americans beat Lithuania 99-94, improving to 58-1 since taking Olympic bronze in 2004.
“I feel like it was my time to step up offensively,” James said. “I’ve been doing everything else, which I’m OK with. I’m here to do the little things. I can also score. I’m happy I was able to make a few buckets down the stretch.”
Just as “King James” took command for the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and won his first league crown, he stepped up to the Olympic spotlight and hoisted a multi-millionaire lineup into the quarter-finals as they try to defend gold.
“Facing some adversity like this, being down in the fourth quarter, a lot of teams would not have been able to get through that no matter what type of talent you have,” James said.
“But we were communicating throughout the game during timeouts and on the floor. Our camaraderie is really good. Our team chemistry is really good.”
Darius Songaila sank a jumper to pull Lithuania within 87-86 before James took charge, hitting a 3-pointer to start the decisive run and a layup to end it in the dying seconds.
“Winning like we did was terrific for us,” US coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “To be put in a position where every possession counted, we’re usually not in those games. We had a lot of pressure on us and our guys came through.”
The unbeaten Russians did as well, rallying for a 77-74 triumph after a Spain squad filled with NBA talent squandered a 20-2 lead just 5:30 into the game, trailing before the end of the third quarter.
The Spaniards, reigning European champions, opened 8-of-10 from the field while the Russians missed 10 of their first 11 shots.
Vitaliy Fridzon scored 24 points while NBA star Pau Gasol had 20 in a losing cause. Gasol was out of position to allow an uncontested Timofey Mozgov dunk late and then missed a free throw to help seal Spain’s fate.
“This team has been together a long time,” Russian coach David Blatt said. “We’re a game-ready team.”
Spain will play Brazil to decide the second and third playoff seeds behind Russia in Group B. The winner could face the Group A champion, like the US NBA stars, in the semi-finals. The loser would avoid them until the final and that prompted questions about it possibly being better to lose for Brazil or Spain.
Brazil coach Magnano Ruben dismissed that idea for his players after his team downed China 98-59.
“How am I going to ask them ever to win if one day I ask them to lose?” he said.
But the situation could bring uncomfortable questions over errors, a Spanish team already nagged by inconsistency.
“We are right in the middle of a championship and we should be at a better place right now so it’s very inconsistent at this point,” Gasol said.
“We’re playing at a very high level because of the talent in our players but we’re capable of playing very average for the potential of the team we have.”
NBA San Antonio Spurs guard Patrick Mills scored 39 points to lead Australia over Britain 106-75 to secure the Boomers a berth in the last eight, but they will face the US NBA stars if the Americans beat Argentina on Monday.
Tony Parker, Mills’ NBA teammate, scored a game-high 22 points to lead France over winless Tunisia 73-69 and Argentina downed Nigeria 93-79, ensuring last-eight berths for both Argentina and the French.
Nigeria (1-3), Lithuania (1-3) or Tunisia (0-4) will fill the last vacant spot on Monday.