Kevin Durant often is called the best basketball player on the planet, and it’s not just because at 6-foot-10 he is a lethal outside shooter who can use his size to get to the hoop.
No, Durant is in the elite class of player — regardless of sport — who rises to the moment time and time again.
And he showed that once again Thursday, scoring 23 points and grabbing nine rebounds as the U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team (4-1) came back from a 15-point deficit to surge past Australia (4-1) in the semifinals of the 2020 Olympic Games. With a 97-78 win at Saitama Super Arena, the U.S. earned a shot at a fourth straight gold medal.
The Americans will face either France (4-0) or Slovenia (4-0) in Friday’s 10:30 p.m. EDT gold medal game on Peacock.
Devin Booker came on strong in the second half and scored 20 points for the U.S., while Jrue Holiday had 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Holiday also was a key part of the American defensive effort, particularly on Australia’s Patty Mills, who had tortured the U.S. in the previous two matchups with Australia. Mills had 15 points — on 5-of-14 shooting — to go with eight assists and five rebounds. Australia has never won an Olympic medal, though it has reached the bronze-medal game four times.
For about the first 15 minutes, the U.S. looked ragged. Dante Exum lobbed a pass to Jock Landale for a dunk, giving Australia a 41-26 advantage with 5:23 left.
USA coach Gregg Popovich said the team’s defensive effort early was “pretty poor,” which carried over to the offensive end.
“When we pointed it out, they reacted,” Popovich said. “In the last five minutes of the second quarter, they were fantastic, and it continued into the third. I give them credit for understanding the game as well as being able to accept the truth. Because you can be with some players that you can tell them something, but they don’t buy it because they can’t handle certain kinds of criticism. But these guys want the truth, and they react to it.”
The reaction was a 16-4 run to close the half that pulled the Americans within 45-42. Then Durant provided the dagger. After Holiday scored the first two buckets of the third quarter, Durant scored the game’s next eight points, and the U.S. was never threatened again.
“We know teams are going to come out fast and hit us with a nice punch,” said Durant, who had 15 points in the first half. “We know teams want to get us down early and see how we respond. A lot of these guys got continuity for years and years and know how to play with each other. I feel like a lot of teams are expecting us to fold early. We stuck with it and stuck with our principles, made a couple of scheme switches on defense, and we were able to get some momentum going to the half.”
When Durant put the USA in control, it seemed to loosen any pressure his teammates were feeling. Booker, in particular, came alive in the third quarter, scoring 11 points to help seal the deal.
Booker said Durant, a winner of two NBA titles and two Olympic golds, shows the other Olympic newcomers the way to approach these games.
“100% and that’s not just on the court,” Booker said when asked if he agreed that Durant was locked in during these Games. “We get that same spirit and that vibe and energy from him off the court. He’s been in these situations before, and he’s leading us as such. I think these games are real meaningful to him and our whole team. He’s been a great leader for us. We feed off what he does, and we feed off his energy.”
Durant, who passed Carmelo Anthony to become the U.S. men’s leading scorer in the Olympics during pool play, went over 400 points in 21 games. But when asked about putting up another big point total in the gold medal game — he scored 30 in each of the last two — he wasn’t worried about his scoring.
“I’m looking forward to going out there and executing the game plan on defense,” Durant said. “Offensively, we don’t have to worry about that. But executing the game plan defensively as a team, and we’ll see what happens.”
And like Popovich, Durant has shown his teammates that their opponents aren’t to be taken lightly. France beat the U.S. 83-76 to open play in Saitama — one of only six losses the Americans have suffered in 148 Olympic games — while Slovenia is playing in its first Olympics.
“We respect every team here,” said USA guard Damian Lillard, who had five points and three rebounds against Australia. “A lot of these guys have played together for years and years and years. They come play FIBA, and the Olympics and all these things all the time together. And for us, we’re just putting a team together of a bunch of talented individuals trying to become a team in a short amount of time. I think now we’re starting to gel and become more of a team, and we’re starting to play better.”
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