U.S. men's basketball surges in second half vs. Australia to reach gold-medal game

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United States's Keldon Johnson (4), left, and head coach Gregg Popovich.
U.S. forward Keldon Johnson, left, and coach Gregg Popovich celebrate after a 97-78 win over Australia in the men's basketball semifinals Thursday. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Gregg Popovich borrowed a term from Mike Krzyzewski, the previous U.S. men’s basketball coach, which he shared in the Americans' time together in Las Vegas.

“Strong faces” — it means no panic, no disappointment, no reaction to whatever is going wrong.

“It's basically a play-on to the next play," Popovich explained. "You don't react to your teammate’s turnover, the referee’s call or the fact that you missed the shot. Nobody cares. You don't have that right. You owe your team, and you're responsible for your team to move on to the next play. He called them ‘strong faces.’ As simplistic as that sounds, it's really true.”

It’s also really hard.

With his team down double-digits Thursday in the Olympic semifinals, Popovich witnessed another botched defensive sequence followed by a nightmarish offensive possession where Jayson Tatum drove into the lane and forced up a next-to-impossible shot.

As the ball went the other way, Popovich put his hands over his eyes and pulled them down, disbelief breaking through his “strong face.”

Luckily for the Americans, the players had already learned that lesson.

Behind Kevin Durant’s continued excellence and Jrue Holiday’s dogged defending, that double-digit deficit was quickly undone, the Americans advancing to the gold-medal game after a 97-78 win over Australia.

Jrue Holiday leaps for the basket at the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. forward Jrue Holiday drives to the basket Thursday during a win over Australia. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Down by as many as 15 points, the U.S. team used a 20-0 run to grab control of the game early in the third, Durant sinking jumper after jumper, his shooting stroke sweeter than a Japanese latte. Already the all-time leading scorer for the American men’s Olympic team, he’s settled into a role as the team’s clear-cut star after playing passively when the U.S. opened competition with a loss to France, which it will play in the gold-medal game.

He had 32 against the Czech Republic, 29 against Spain and 23 Thursday against Australia, powering the team’s offense and getting them one win away from their fourth-straight gold medal, the longest American streak since winning the first seven Olympic competitions.

Asked by a Slovenian reporter whether he would rather see Luka Doncic in the Olympic final or get a chance at revenge against France, the “strong face” failed Popovich again.

“You really think I'm going to answer that question? How long have you been a reporter? You must be talking to some dumb coaches,” Popovich said with a smile. “I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole."

The Americans, of course, didn’t get to choose. It’ll be a re-match with France after the French held off Doncic in the final seconds of a terrific semifinal. And even though they’ll be facing a team that’s beaten them twice in the last two major international competitions, they have to be more comfortable with who they are now, in large part, because of who their second-best player has been.

Fresh from winning an NBA title, Holiday has emerged as the perfect complement to Durant — a point-of-attack defender and an aggressive attacker on offense that the Americans used to defend the two most accomplished Australians, NBA players Joe Ingles and Patty Mills.

“I keep referring to Jrue Holiday. He makes that ball move around,” Australian coach Brian Goorjian said. “And where they got us, and when they got Spain, is when they picked it up on the defensive end of the floor. And that, I think, makes them the outright favorite.”

While Popovich thought Holiday, Devin Booker and Khris Middleton would all be in great basketball shape after playing in the NBA Finals, he had no real expectations of how they would fit on a new basketball team with zero practice time.

Thursday, with Holiday dominating on defense, with Booker scoring 20 and Middleton adding 11, those questions have mostly been answered. While Booker and Middleton are finding themselves, Holiday has made an impact since his first minutes in the tournament.

“The players know. We think he's the best on-ball defender in the league,” Zach LaVine said. “He's incredible. He knows what he's doing out there, and to have him on this team was a big boost. He sets the tone on defense that we try to pick up after that.”

Thursday, the slow start was awful, with a defeat looking almost like a probability until the defense kicked in. From there, it was a bullet train — the Americans not only talented, but a balanced team.

It had to make their coach excited. But after messing up once before, Popovich definitely wasn’t going to show it.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.