TOKYO — Gregg Popovich kept reminding everyone during these Olympics that the rest of the world has been catching up with the Americans in basketball. He’s right. They have.
It’s just no one has caught up with Kevin Durant.
The United States men’s basketball team won its fourth consecutive gold medal, and Durant won his third, by beating France 87-82 here Saturday.
Durant led the way with 29 points, including two key free throws with 8.8 seconds remaining to seal the victory and hold off a ferocious French comeback attempt. He scored 30 in each of his previous two gold medal games and cemented himself as the greatest international player of all time.
“He’s the best player in the world,” Damian Lillard said this week.
“One game and you go home, so I have to give it my all when I am out there,” Durant said on NBC after. “I was able to knock down shots to keep us afloat and then Dame hit some shots in the fourth.”
It wasn’t all Durant though.
France’s Nicolas Batum, who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, put an admirable effort into harassing Durant late, as the French cut a double-digit U.S. lead to just three points with 10 seconds remaining. Durant didn’t score in the fourth quarter until his final free throw attempts.
That forced the Americans to get additional help from other stars such as Lillard (11 points), Jrue Holiday (11) and Jayson Tatum (19). They also got some timely defense and rebounding by Draymond Green.
“Do whatever it takes, this is what we came for,” Tatum said. “It was win or go home. We know it's going to be different guys every night and we figured it out. … This is something you always dream of. This is an amazing thing.”
Durant, a native of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, didn’t just score, he scored at critical moments early in the game to either thwart a French run or when younger teammates might have struggled. He also added 6 rebounds, 3 assists and helped set the tone defensively.
The victory avenged a loss to France in group play, just the sixth Olympic defeat in the history of USA Men's Basketball. The Americans blew numerous leads in that one as three key players — Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Holiday — had just arrived from the NBA Finals and didn’t join the team until the morning of the game.
“[My teammates] sacrificed for everyone, put the team first and got the gold,” Durant said.
Middleton and Holiday, of the Milwaukee Bucks, managed to win an NBA title and an Olympic championship in a matter of weeks.
Durant scored just 10 points in each of the U.S.’s first two games but he averaged 27.0 in the knockout stages. The Americans won by 14 over Spain and by 19 against Australia. This one was closer, but the French never led in the second half.
The victory was the first for Popovich, who has led the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA titles in his storied career. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he’s taken particular pride in USA Basketball. He was stung by serving as an assistant on the 2004 Olympic team that won “only” a bronze medal.
"We're glad it's over," Popovich said after talking about some "difficult circumstances."
The United States has now won 16 golds in 19 Olympics and have dominated this event since 2008’s “Redeem Team” helped prioritize getting the best talent to join the team. In this cycle, no one was more important than Durant, who chose to come despite a NBA season pushed back into the summer due to COVID and his recovery from an achilles injury that cost him an entire year of basketball.
Durant’s presence was critical in getting additional talent to join the team and, as Popovich noted, the U.S. needed all it could get.
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