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A can't miss performance

James gave it his best shots

As his 11-for-11 shooting Wednesday showed, LeBron James has emerged as the driving force for the US. As his 11-for-11 shooting Wednesday showed, LeBron James has emerged as the driving force for the US. (JAE C. HONG/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

LAS VEGAS - As hard as it may be to believe, LeBron James, at the ripe old age of 22, is the clubhouse leader for USA Basketball in continuous games of service to the Motherland. Last night, in the finale of the second round of the zone qualifier for the 2008 Olympics, he played in his 25th straight game for Uncle Sam's lads, a span that stretches back to the ill-fated crew at Athens in 2004 and last summer's "almost there" group at the World Championships.

But he may go another 25 games - or, more likely, a lot more - before he can replicate what he did Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center against Uruguay before a small sampling of friends, admirers, and celebrities (Jay-Z and Beyoncé). In 14 impact minutes, he scored 26 points, making all 11 of his shots. There were 3-pointers (four) and at least two eye-popping dunks that prompted Jay-Z to rise from his courtside seat in applause.

It was reminiscent of James's incredible explosion for the Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, a comparison that probably didn't sit well with two of his USA Basketball teammates, Detroit's Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince. "It's not even close," sniffed Prince when asked about the comparison. "When you do it on the stage of the Eastern Conference finals?"

As opposed to the FIBA Americas qualifier against a team with no current NBA players? Offered Billups, "It makes some sense."

But the first-half performance was it for James (and, a little later, for Jay-Z and Beyoncé as the lead stretched into the 30s). James watched the second half from the bench as the United States improved to 7-0 at the expense of another yard sale victim, 118-79. But his body of work did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

"He had a perfect game," marveled USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, who has a longtime affinity for baseball and once was one of the poo-bahs of the Arizona Diamondbacks. "Offensively, defensively. He made every shot. He didn't make any mistakes. It was the perfect game."

Heading into last night's game against Argentina - which meant nothing in the Big Picture even though both teams were undefeated - James was on a tear. He was averaging 16.6 points, second on the team to chum Carmelo Anthony, in just 19.9 minutes a game. (FIBA games are 40 minutes.) But more impressive was his shooting eye. He had made 47 of 59 shots, a dazzling 79.7 percent.

He also has been among the more vocal US players, and his enthusiasm, unselfishness, and intensity have been contagious.

"We said last year [at the worlds] that Carmelo was really our best player, and [Anthony] had really established himself," Colangelo said. "Carmelo is better this year, but it hasn't been that big of a jump because he was already there.

"LeBron, in every respect, is in a zone. His work ethic. He's working his tail off defensively. He has taken everything to a new level."

This medium - a tournament with one superior team - fits James to a T. He has blended seamlessly with Jason Kidd, utilizing his eye-popping speed and strength to the basket. Last month, James even expressed regret that he knew these golden days would come to an end once he got back to Cleveland and the pound-the-ball offense of Mike Brown.

But the tournament also has given James a chance to showcase his other skills, whether they be off-the-court stuff or situations that evolve during games. He's one of only three players who were in Japan last summer (Anthony and Dwight Howard being the other two) and one of only three holdovers from the 2004 Olympic team (Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are the other two).

USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "The thing that is so great about LeBron is that he doesn't have to score a point. He's not even looking for points. His most important thing is his voice on the court. His leadership and his enthusiasm for this team have really elevated our team."

Ask James about his achievements and you get a lot of, well, James-speak. There's a lot of "trying to get better" and "doing whatever it takes." But when you get away from the dunks and the 3-pointers and the hand signals to Jay-Z, you get the feeling that 2007 is, for the first time, a really enjoyable USA Basketball experience for the Cavaliers' franchise player.

"I think there is a whole little family thing that kicks in," he said. "You see it in the locker room. We get along with each other and we have fun, and it all translates onto the court. We respect each other and we go out there and play as a family, and that has definitely showed in the first seven games.

"On the 2004 team," he continued, "we didn't have as much a family-oriented team. Last summer, we started doing that, and this summer, it just full blossomed out."

And, needless to say, it would climax with a win tomorrow in the semifinals and a guaranteed trip to Beijing in 2008.

Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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