TOKYO — For the first two games of the Olympics, it would have been hard to tell that Kevin Durant is Team USA’s best player. In the shocking loss to France, he was practically invisible. Against overmatched Iran, he wasn’t necessary.
But on Saturday against the Czech Republic, Durant finally looked like the guy who can lead the Untied States to another gold medal.
Needing a lift after falling behind the Czech Republic early on Saturday, Durant finally took charge and sparked the Americans to a 119-84 victory that clinches second place in group play behind France heading into the quarterfinals next Tuesday. In the process, he became the all-time scoring leader for Team USA at the Olympics, passing Carmelo Anthony.
“Just thinking about all the players who played in this program, it’s pretty cool to be amongst names like that,” said Durant, who had 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting against the Czech Republic. “Carmelo is a guy that I played on two Olympic teams with and seen his approach to these games and tried to steal some of his techniques. It’s still pretty weird to me to do stuff like this. I try my hardest to make it like a group (achievement), but it is special to do something like that and scoring is something I worked on my whole career and to consistently do it is pretty cool.”
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In some respects, it’s remarkable — and commendable — that Durant is even here because most of the players at his level decided not to come this time. It’s hard to blame them. For NBA superstars, being locked up in a hotel in Tokyo for two weeks is not anyone’s idea of a great offseason. And Durant, who isn’t that far removed from a grueling Achilles rehab, already has two gold medals. If there’s anyone who didn’t really need to do this, it’s him.
In a year where LeBron James made an early decision not to come, Steph Curry opted to stay home and rest and plenty of other stars simply passed, Durant showed up. And when he’s in that mode where nobody in the world can guard him like Saturday against the Czech Republic, Team USA suddenly appears far more functional than they have at any point in this process.
“It looked easy, didn’t it? It looked easy,” guard Jrue Holiday said. “That’s fun to watch and fun to be part of.”
Getting spurts of Durant at his shot-making best unlocked everything for the U.S., which hit 63 percent for the game and made an astounding 25-of-31 from 2-point range. Sparked by a flurry from Durant, Team USA missed just a single field goal attempt in third quarter, outscored the Czechs 35-17 and finally went into full flight after being stuck in the mud offensively for much of their Olympic experience.
Jayson Tatum, who had struggled to make shots in Tokyo, picked up where Durant left off and finally got into a rhythm in the fourth quarter, finishing with a team-high 27 points and five threes.
“Their biggest strength is that anyone can light it up,” said Tomas Satoransky, the Czech guard who plays for the Chicago Bulls. “Individually they’re the best team in the world. Jayson Tatum and KD had an amazing game. It’s tough to do any adjustments when a guy is able to shoot over a 7 footer, long threes, Tatum can create shots whenever he wants. They were physical and athletic in the third quarter and we ran out of gas a little bit.”
Durant’s 10-point spurt in the third quarter coincided with the U.S. breaking open what had been a competitive and somewhat concerning game to that point. Team USA, in fact, trailed by seven after the first quarter and led just 47-43 at halftime, seemingly inviting yet another struggle for a team that hasn’t really played up to its talent level since coming together in Las Vegas earlier this month.
Ronen Ginzburg, the coach of the Czech team, said the plan was to attack what he called “the weakest point of the U.S.” in the post, where every opponent knows by this point that they are undersized and undermanned. Early on, the Czech Republic was able to get it into the post, exploit the switching Team USA defense for mismatches and get good looks close to the rim.
Combine that with enough mediocre possessions on offense where Team USA players settle for contested jumpers and that’s a recipe for problems against the quality of teams they’ll face going forward.
“I thought we played a poor first half and a very good second half against a team that executes very well and if you don’t come ready what happened to us in the first half happens,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “We allowed too many catches in the post and in the second half we fought it much better and did our work early so that we didn’t get in those positions.”
Through three games, it’s clear Team USA has started to establish some continuity and flow to what it’s doing. But it’s also clear that the matchup issues it faced for that early stretch against the Czech Republic are not an aberration. France, in beating the U.S. last Sunday, won largely because there was no real answer for playing a pair of 7-footers together in the second half.
In the NBA, a team built around guards and wings can thrive with smallball. In international play, it’s going to be more difficult to get away with when you don’t have a traditional center and you’re relying on Bam Adebayo to out-muscle bigger players.
“I think they’re obviously the biggest favorite for the gold medal, but they’re not going to have it easy,” Satoransky said. “A a lot of European teams have a lot of old school bigs. If you play smart against them and try to push it inside against smaller defenders, you’re going to have some chances.”
The size issue makes it all the more crucial for Durant to step up because he’s the matchup for the U.S. that nobody will have an answer for. He’s going to have to do a little bit of everything — make perimeter shots, defend, create, even bang in the post at times — but under these circumstances there’s nobody more important to their hopes of winning gold for the fourth consecutive Olympics.
“I’ve been asked to do a lot from every team I’ve played on,” he said. “Every coach expects me to go out and adapt to any situation so it’s no different here. It’s fun to be able to mix it up and do other things. People know me for scoring, but my game has expanded and I feel like I can do everything at a high level.”