Tokyo Olympics: Men's Basketball- The United States, led by Kevin Durant, with an emphatic victory against France to claim the gold
Kevin Durant scored a decisive 29 points to lead Team USA to victory against France in the gold medal match
It was one of the most difficult summers for the players in the United States men's basketball team, as they came back from two back to back seasons with very little time to recuperate. Fatigue and injuries were a concern for the team heading into preparations for the Olympics as core stars such as Kevin Durant, were just coming back after rehabbing a major injury. Star names such as Stephen Curry and LeBron James dropped out of contention as they considered their long seasons and time away from their families due to yet another bubble atmosphere. The players competing in the Olympics not only had to deal with physical fatigue but mental obstacles too, making the win a bit more special than most.
Assembling a squad full of superstars cannot be the perfect recipe for success always. A squad that has superior talent is not guaranteed a title due to the lack of chemistry, but the Americans proved us wrong, showing us that a bunch of supremely talented players could figure the puzzle out and sacrifice their egos for a bigger cause.
Team USA got off to a slow start with a shocking loss to France in the group stage, which sent alarm bells ringing. The team eventually got back in fine form, led by their captain Kevin Durant and steamrolled their way into the semifinals, where they had a scare against Australia before trouncing them in the second half. The win against Australia helped set up a finals meeting with a France team that was on a roll.
Rudy Gobert and France dominated teams on the paint and blazed into the finals, with big-time games from players such as Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum. Their inside presence was expected to cause problems for Team USA due to a lack of Centers other than Javale Mcgee to guard Gobert in the post.
Team USA started the finals on the right foot, with intent and precise passes led by KD and Khris Middleton, stunning the French, who did not have an answer for the 6′ 10″ sniper. KD came out guns blazing and helped lead his team as he did throughout the tournament. His teammates took the cue from KD and played their skins out.
The second half was a completely different picture though, as France came back, using Gobert's strong post presence to counter Team USA's mid-rangers and perimeter game. Rudy dominated inside the paint, gobbling up rebounds and kicking the ball out to open shooters to help them get back in the game. Nicolas Batum's intense defense on KD helped keep the Brooklyn Nets star at bay. Batum's defense was so good that KD scored only two points in the fourth quarter. Timely buckets from Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum allowed Team USA to keep their lead despite France being at their throat at most times. The final buzzer went off and the Americans were ecstatic after holding off France to capture the gold.
Kevin Durant cemented his legacy as the greatest Olympic USA Basketball player by winning a record third gold medal after a game-high 29 points. KD also overtook Carmelo Anthony as the greatest scorer for America at the Olympics. The KD effect was especially critical in these Olympics as he led his team from the front and bailed them out when they needed clutch buckets.
"I hate to compare stuff because everything has its moment. But this is one of those special journey's that is hard to describe. 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. It was just that journey that 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," said Kevin Durant in his interview with FIBA.
KD's effect was perfectly described by Nando De Colo when he said, "Kevin Durant is amazing. You put a big on him, he's able to drive. You put a small guy on him, and he's able to shoot over him. All my teammates did their best, but it is really difficult. Right now, for sure, we got some emotions where it's not easy for us. But we are proud, I'm sure tonight it will feel great."
Draymond Green, who ended up with a team-high 5 assists on the night, was the vocal leader of the team and was a key reason for their top-notch defense.
"For me, this is right up there at the top. You just think about the road travelled to get here. Every one of us has been living through one of the craziest times that the world has seen. For it to have been pushed back a year, losing guys because of Covid, leaving your family - all of those things. And then the doubt. Every country continues to get better. The doubt we heard over and over again. You turn on Sports Talk in America, and everyone was crushing us. So, this is special," said Draymond, after their victory.
It was a disappointing end to France's campaign, but the team's run would give them the confidence required to be back in Paris 2024. Led by a future Hall-of-Famer in Rudy Gobert, France will be back stronger than ever.
"We knew that obviously, they are a very talented team with great players. All those guys like KD and Dame are going to make shots that nobody can guard at times. But when you give up those types of turnovers and miss the free throws, those are the kind of details when you shoot yourself in the foot. When we did this, they made it a 12-14 point lead right away and then you have to work to grind your way back to make it a close game, which we did, and we never gave up, but we were short in the end," said Rudy, who was emotional after the game.
Coach Pop was in the hot seat, taking over from the legendary Coach K, who led Team USA to their previous two gold medals. The legendary San Antonio Spurs coach took up the challenge and led from the front, managing superstars like Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard while keeping the bigger picture in sight.
"I talked to the other coaches, it's sort of an out-of-body experience when you're in these games. You compete, once the ball goes up, you don't think about it anymore, you just compete. But it's before the game that's horrible. You're thinking about did you skip any steps, what else the other team can do to you, what do we have to do. Those are the tough moments. But while the game is going on, you don't really think that much. If anything, one of the thoughts was thinking about Jerry Colangelo and Sean Ford, who have been doing this for so long. That was one of our motivations, to do it for these two guys," said Coach Pop after their historic win.