US basketball

Kevin Durant leads Team USA to golden heights

Naveen Ganglani
Kevin Durant leads Team USA to golden heights

GREATNESS. Kevin Durant’s command of the game spearheads Team USA to a golden run.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

‘I hate to compare stuff because everything has its own moment. But this is one of those special journeys that is hard to describe,’ says Kevin Durant of Team USA’s tough Olympic title defense

There’s this practice where the basketball community comes together every now and then to praise Kevin Durant for his brilliance at playing the game. It happens quite regularly. Yet each time it does, the community forgets it was only recently when Durant earned our admiration, because he reaches a level of greatness so regularly that it’s deserving of constant amazement.

Almost like watching your favorite movie for the first time all over again.

Such was the case anew when the 32-year-old NBA MVP and champion added to his Olympic legacy with the type of “I’m-the-best-player-in-the-world” performance he’s become known for. 

Following 30-point showcases in the gold-medal match of men’s basketball in 2012 and 2016, the now Brooklyn Net scored 29 to lead Team USA past France, 87-82, in Tokyo on Saturday, August 7.

In what was the most tumultuous campaign for the dominant basketball program since their disappointing result in Athens 17 years back, the Americans outlasted a passionate French squad to win the USA its fourth consecutive gold in the tournament.

This squad – a young core led by a few grizzled veterans, KD included – won’t give the Dream Team or Redeem Team a run for their money. They’d likely be underdogs against the 2012 and 2016 squads Durant was a part of. But the now Gregg Popovich-coached team got the ultimate job done despite the scheduling challenges and lack of practice time presented to them in a world where the battle against COVID rages on.

“I hate to compare stuff because everything has its own moment. But this is one of those special journeys that is hard to describe,” Durant said. “Each and every one of us put in that work every single day. From the coaches, to the trainers, to the players. We all came in with that goal of let’s finish this thing off, let’s build a family, let’s build and grow this team every single day.”

“Each game we continued to grow,” he added. “It was just that journey which was so important. You finish the job, you get the gold medal and the trophy, but when you go through that journey it is just incredible to be part of something so special. I am bonded with these guys for life and I am just glad that we all committed to this thing so early, stuck with it and finished it off.”

Durant mesmerized onlookers both in Japan and all over the world with a dazzling display of shot-making from all parts of the FIBA floor. He even attempted to relive a vintage Vince Carter dunk from generations ago, which was fitting given Mr. Vinsanity was on the call as an analyst for NBC’s broadcast.

Durant’s only challenge was the handful of easy buckets scored on him by France center Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz, although that had more to do with KD’s lack of height against his taller opponent and the switch-happy scheme Pop instructed the Americans to utilize. 

At first glance, it seemed questionable why USA was so willing to let Gobert and France’s bigs get easy scoring opportunities in the post, especially when the French raced off to an early 10-4 lead. America banked on the strength and determination of their perimeter players, who would have had an advantage with the speed and spacing opportunities unfurled by the shorter lineup.

That space allowed Durant to go to work, leading to his dominant morning. There was a play in the third quarter when Gobert attempted to contest Durant’s shot attempt, but was too slow to bother him.

If you watch the clip on the internet, you’ll notice the other important parts of manifesting that specific Durant three-pointer. Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo rebounds the basketball following a missed France shot and dribbles it down the court – rare for a starting center. He then passes it to Devin Booker, who for a second attracts the eyes of KD’s defender.

All it took was that one moment for the tides to turn. Durant received a pass from Book then used his body as a screen, forcing a recovering Nic Batum to switch on him. Afterwards, Adebayo provided KD with a bone-crushing screen that levels Batum. Gobert, who’s playing drop defense, has to make up ground, but isn’t quick enough as Durant rose cleanly for his patented long-range J.

Adebayo’s importance to team USA against France and in their semis win against Australia has gone underrated. Bam had multiple effort plays in the first half when the Americans trailed the Aussies by 15 which led to second-chance scoring opportunities that sparked the game-changing run. 

Against a taller Gobert and the French, Bam’s knack for doing the little things – especially shutting down the likes of Evan Fournier on defense – was key to his team’s success.

Adebayo and Durant, who play for two teams expected to be contenders in the East next NBA season, linked up on a few decent plays.

There was a sequence where Durant used Batum’s defensive stance against him and cut to the rim. Adebayo delivered a beautiful bounce pass that’s right on the mark, leading to a dunk and foul.

There was another one where after Bam blocks a shot, he taps out a missed Fournier shot that provides KD a headstart to score on transition with a crafty move against Gobert.

In the second half, France tried switching up their defensive philosophy on KD, sending two defenders his way after Adebayo provides the screen. Durant countered by hitting his teammate with a pocket pass and he responded by nailing an open jumper.

Adebayo even displayed some two-way brilliance of his own in the first period by blocking Fournier on one end and then hitting a Durant-like pull-back jumper on the other.

Other stars stepped up to the plate as well. Jayson Tatum scored 19 off the bench while Jrue Holiday was the perfect glue guy. His defensive pressure in the perimeter was the key culprit to most of France’s 18 turnovers which led to 20 USA points.

But like it was for most of the tournament, it was Durant’s command of the game which spearheaded USA to success. It’s rare for a basketball player to have a trait where the other nine players on the floor look at an individual to determine what’s about to happen, in addition to everyone else in the arena.

Only few in history have ever earned that prestige. Durant is one of them. There comes a moment where the heart skips a few beats as KD dribbles while the shot clock dwindles, setting up everyone for what’s to come. That’s the feeling of watching greatness happen at the moment.

The French put up an admirable fight, highlighted by beautiful ball movement and physicality. 

But sometimes, having the best hooper on the floor is all you need. With Kevin Durant, that’s often the case, and that’s why he’s golden. –