I do not usually consider myself especially patriotic, but when I watched Kevin Durant, seven feet tall, spindly, all smiles, draped in the American flag, celebrating his third Olympic gold medal, I felt like I had no choice but to start chanting “USA! USA!” In the fire of triumph, the announcers had taken to referring to Durant, who had just scored 29 points in an 87-82 victory over France, as Captain America. “It’s winning time. It’s one game or you go home. It’s no series,” Durant told NBC’s Maria Taylor in a postgame interview. “We went through some real adversity. … We fought through everything.”
Despite the fact that the U.S. is the winningest team in Olympic basketball history, it had a treacherous road to the gold this year. Team USA’s journey began on a sour note, with a handful of early losses and a visible lack of chemistry between its players. But by the time the gold-medal game against France, a formidable opponent who beat the U.S. in their first Olympic match-up, began on Friday night, everything finally gelled. After losing two exhibition games, point guard Damian Lillard said, “We are still working at becoming a team.” When the first quarter of the final game got into gear, it was apparent they had finally become a cohesive group.
In their quarterfinal game against Spain and its semifinal game against Australia, Team USA followed the same pattern: a dreadful first quarter full of easy missed buckets, a slow comeback in the second, brutal dominance in the third, and a comfortable fourth to finish the job. France presented a trickier challenge — after all, they already beat the U.S. once — but this time, Team USA was ready. They got into a groove pretty quickly, with Durant owning the offense, making baskets with his characteristic suavity, scoring 21 in the first half. Still, it was the excellent defense of Jrue Holiday and Draymond Green that really kept France at bay. Holiday, who came to Tokyo after most of the team because he was a little busy winning the NBA Finals, was as key to winning the game as Durant, not only deftly defending France’s best players, but also putting up 11 points himself. After the game, Green praised Holiday as “probably the best on-ball defender that the NBA has to offer.”
“Him coming to this team, keeping his commitment, was one of the main reasons we’re sitting here as gold medalists,” Green noted. “When you got a guy like that you can put on every team’s best guard it makes it difficult for them.”
France also put forth some top-notch defense, with Evan Fournier of the Boston Celtics guarding Durant, a mostly un-guardable player, so expertly in the second half that he was only able to put up eight points. Offensively, France remained pretty solid, with its star, seven-foot-one Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, repeatedly finding his way to the rim for easy two-pointers. (The U.S. responded by fouling Gobert nine times. Gobert, a notoriously poor free-throw shooter, only made six of his 13 shots at the line.)
The prevailing narrative in sports coverage before the game was that if Durant’s teammates didn’t give him any offensive help, he was screwed. Rising Celtics star Jayson Tatum became the Robin to Durant’s Batman. He got hot in the second quarter and never cooled down, scoring a total of 19 points.
Even though the U.S. outscored France in the first three quarters, the end of the fourth was a nail-biter. With 31.3 seconds left, the U.S. was up six, and seemingly had their gold medals in the bag. Then France started fouling, first bringing Holiday to the line, who made one of two free throws. Lillard was fouled next, but missed two free throws that could have instantly clinched the win. France went into beast mode, with former Knicks point guard Frank Ntilikina making a dunk, cutting Team USA’s lead to five. An unwise foul from Green then sent France’s Nando de Colo to the line, where he made it a single possession game. But with eight seconds left, Gobert fouled Durant, Captain America effortlessly netted his two free throws, and after France missed a last-ditch three-pointer, Team USA’s victory was locked in.
The Americans may not be strangers to winning Olympic basketball, but the adversity and doubts this Team USA faced made for must-see final games and, in the end, a far sweeter victory.
“This is one of those special journeys,” our protagonist Durant said after the game. “When you’re a part of a team that’s evolving by the second, it’s amazing to see. Each game we continued to grow. I’m grateful we all committed to it, we stuck with it, and we finished it off.”