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Opinion: Kevin Durant one win away from becoming America's greatest international basketball player

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TOKYO – We’ve never really known what makes Kevin Durant happy, what he really wants his legacy in this game to be. Perhaps that’s the way he prefers it. But from the outside looking in, his 13 years in the NBA have marked by the ennui of a millennial who is seduced by the promise of fulfillment, only to discover real life doesn’t exactly work that way.

The path Durant has chosen for his career made him a target of constant derision. He was called a frontrunner for leaving Oklahoma City to join Steph Curry’s team in Golden State. When he left basketball nirvana to join up with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, the only explanation that made sense was annoyance with how little credit he got for delivering two titles.

Of course, we don’t really know that either, which is what makes Durant so hard to pin down. Watching him try to find the sweet spot between blending in and standing out seems like a never-ending journey.

But Durant is one game away at these Olympics from doing something that will hopefully deliver the satisfaction and the unique place in history that seems so elusive for him. If he wins the gold medal on Saturday, Durant will have a claim as the greatest American men's basketball player of all time on the international stage.

“The journey has been fun so far, and we’re looking forward to this opportunity,” Durant said.

Kevin Durant leads Team USA over Australia on Thursday, scoring 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting.
Kevin Durant leads Team USA over Australia on Thursday, scoring 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

Let’s be clear about one thing. For all the talent at the disposal of USA Basketball, it would not be in position for a fourth straight gold medal if Durant said no this time. For as much as Team USA likes to present itself as an egalitarian outfit that can count on any number of stars to deliver big games, this is KD’s run and KD’s team.

For a long while Thursday as the U.S. fell behind 15 points to Australia, it looked like Gregg Popovich may not have the luxury of taking him off the floor for even a minute because without him making the kind of tough shots that only Durant makes, it would have been a far worse hole to dig out of.

As it is, minutes without Durant on the floor have been an adventure for these entire Olympics. Instead, he’s been there to rescue them every time, backing up his 29 points against Spain in the quarterfinals with 23 on 10-of-19 shooting against Australia in a 97-78 victory.

He’s been the Americans’ best player on offense, their best player on defense and the source from which they draw their confidence and their calm.

“That’s not just on the court,” guard Devin Booker said. “We get that same spirit and vibe and energy from him off the court. He’s been in this situation before and he’s lead us as such. We feed off what he does and we feed off his energy. He’s done what he’s done in the Olympics in the past, and he didn’t have to be here but for him to solidify himself and be a leader we feed off that energy.”

In fact, you could say there’s no bigger statement about what defines Durant as a basketball player than the fact he showed up in Tokyo at all.

At 32, Durant has done his civic duty to the United States and then some. He scored 30 points in a tight 2012 gold medal game against Spain. He scored 30 again in 2016 against Serbia. When a player of Durant’s caliber goes 2-for-2 at the Olympics, it’s almost selfish to ask for more.

And let’s be honest here: Nobody came to Tokyo expecting this to be an easy task. Team USA’s hotel suites are surely nicer than the typical athletes’ cots in the Olympic Village, but sacrificing your summer to be locked down in a foreign country except for practices and games is nobody’s idea of a great time.

You can understand why Damian Lillard, who always wanted to be an Olympian but didn’t quite make the cut last time, wanted to put this on his resume. You can see how for a young player like Jayson Tatum or Devin Booker this could be a valuable experience to help them take the next step toward superstardom.

But for Durant, to make this commitment – and deliver like he has – after coming off an Achilles tear and a compressed NBA season is truly the stuff of legends.

“We all know who he is,” Lillard said. “Probably the best player in the world. You get in a setting like this and with that height, that athleticism, his ability to shoot and handle, nobody can stop him. When the game gets like that and he gets going, our team should feel really comfortable.”

This Olympic run would not be a comfortable experience without Durant. There’s a pretty high likelihood it would be embarrassing. Instead, he’s America’s all-time leading scorer at the Olympics and on the verge of his third gold medal.

Regardless of his petty Internet fights, his thin skin or his penchant for jumping from one superteam to the next, that alone gives Durant a claim to something special in his career. It should earn him the adoration that is long overdue.

Durant may never have started out trying to become the best Olympian ever in his sport, but that’s the title he’s going to leave here with. Hopefully he can truly enjoy it.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Kevin Durant leads US past Australia, possibly to gold