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Vintage KD emerges at just the right time

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RIO DE JANEIRO – Kevin Durant has long had a knack for doing inconceivable things on the basketball court, given the skill, dexterity and shooting range he possesses despite being a near 7-footer masquerading as an alleged 6-9 small forward. Durant’s ability to score in a myriad of ways has separated him from the rest and he only needed roughly seven seconds in Team USA’s 105-78 victory over Argentina to remind everyone of his unparalleled arsenal.

A double-crossover dribble, head-fake Eurostep into a classic, Dirk Nowitzki, one-legged fadeaway had Andres Nocioni clumsily kicking out his leg, Manu Ginobili stumbling in confusion, and his United States men’s Olympic basketball teammates on the bench hopping out of their seats in awe or doing exaggerated, hilarious imitations. “I’m all for a guy with some skills,” DeMarcus Cousins said with a laugh. “That was impressive.”

The U.S. had been waiting most of these Olympics to see a Durant that he appeared reluctant to reveal in Brazil. Out of deference, confusion or extreme patience, Durant resisted the urge to have one of those takeovers that has come to define his career in both the NBA and international competitions. His play was out of character and, not coincidentally, his team was out of sorts. But with doubt beginning to surround Durant and America’s latest collection of All-Star talent, the former league MVP had the appropriate approach: He stopped caring.

“I was telling myself before I left my room that I’m at my best when I don’t care if we win or lose,” Durant said after his best game of these Olympics with 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists. “It might be different for other players, but for me I’m more free and more aggressive in games and it’s more fun for me if I don’t care about the outcome.”

Kevin Durant had 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists Wednesday. (AP)
Kevin Durant had 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists Wednesday. (AP)

Durant and Carmelo Anthony were expected to be the leaders of this Olympic team. They were the only two players with an understanding of what it takes on this stage, with the résumés of past exploits in these games to garner the respect of their teammates. Anthony had his get-on-my-back game against Australia and made some huge, late shots over Serbia and France. Durant’s relative disappearance in winning time and the team’s overall malaise raised questions about leadership and if alphas were lacking from a team that had previously benefited from the presence of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. That type of discussion has always perturbed Durant, who has preferred to blend in as part of the show while maintaining the confidence that his talents would eventually force him to stand out.

“When you’re looking at the game of basketball, it’s about ‘the guy.’ Who is the No. 1 guy? The leader? Who’s the alpha? All that stuff,” Durant told The Vertical about team hierarchies.

At Tuesday’s practice, Durant stressed the importance of being patient on a team loaded with other capable scorers. He hadn’t felt the need to shoot more because he was tied for the team lead in field-goal attempts with Kyrie Irving, and he didn’t feel the need to score more because he was the team’s leading scorer. The stats masked the passivity his teammates were patiently waiting for him to abandon. In the do-or-die phase of this tournament, they no longer had to worry; the real Durant finally came out from hiding.

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“I told him I was happy to see him kind of get back to being himself out there,” Anthony said. “Every day it’s going to be somebody different.”

But it makes a difference when the team’s best player is the one providing the inspiration, raising confidence with each three-pointer and using the attention attracted from the opposing defense to set up teammates. Durant typically writes, “Have Fun” and “Smile” on his sneakers but forgot to scribble that reminder before facing Argentina.

“It’s always embedded in me, always knowing that’s why I play the game. I had fun playing as a kid, so why change it?” Durant said. “I always try to tell myself, just smile out there and have fun. My smile is contagious and my energy and enthusiasm is contagious and I try to spread that to my teammates.”

The aggressive manner in which he attacked Argentina will need to be duplicated for the remainder of the Olympics – especially with Friday’s semifinal opponent, Spain, playing some of the best basketball in its past three games. “This is the stage he thrives on,” Irving said of Durant. “You can count on KD being KD in the biggest moments, which we’ve all come to respect and kind of rely on.”

Durant had already won a scoring title, made an All-Star team and led the Oklahoma City Thunder into the postseason before he ever had the chance to wear a USA jersey. But the moment that truly propelled him, made him believe that anything he wanted for his career was possible, came in Istanbul, where he suited up in the 2010 FIBA world championships, turned his jump shot into a registered weapon and turned fans of the host country into a new legion of Durant fans, while leading the United States to a gold medal.

“That was who I was supposed to be. No matter if it would’ve happened or not, I felt I was supposed to be a star,” Durant said. “Aggressive player on the team. I’m supposed to score. I always felt that was me. I was brought up that way. I was raised that way.”

In his Olympic debut in London four years ago, Durant had no problem asserting himself offensively on a team with James and Bryant. What changed from then to Brazil? Durant has accomplished almost everything he’s wanted short of an NBA title. This summer, he has changed teams and is slowly beginning to change his mindset from being that overly ambitious kid ready to destroy all in his path with a pull-up jumper. Durant knows he can score better than anyone playing in Brazil. But his primary objective now is to win by any means.

“As years go on, I’m starting to think the game a little bit more, on how to be a better leader and how make my teammates better, outside of just being tunnel vision every time I get it, I score it. I’m still trying to find the balance,” Durant said this week. “It’s a good place to be, when people rely on you do to so much, but also be yourself to the core. It’s a learning period. It takes some time to figure that sweet spot out and I’m still learning.”

When the Olympics end, Durant will step into another situation with the Golden State Warriors in which he’ll have to share the ball with other All-Stars and capable scorers, including two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry. How that dynamic plays out will determine the failure or success of that intriguing experiment. Klay Thompson wasn’t the least bit concerned: “We’ll figure it out quick.”

“I don’t know what type of player people think I am. I don’t have to have the ball at all times for me to be effective,” Durant said. “I feel I can fit in any system, no matter where I play. I can fit in well.”

Just as with Team USA, the Warriors will undoubtedly prefer a Durant who is willing to defer but doesn’t detour much from what makes him special. So once again, USA Basketball can serve as the springboard for the next approaching hurdle. This preliminary exam for the next phase of his NBA career will only be passed with a gold medal.

“I know if I go out there and be who I am, the outcome will dictate itself,” Durant said. “Because I know I put the work in. I love the game. I study the game. So if I go out there and let that stuff take over instead of me getting in my own way mentally, good results will come out of it. I’m not saying I don’t care about winning and losing. Obviously, I prepare the right way. I work hard and I love playing the game with my teammates, but I can’t overthink the game too much.”

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