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U.S. Men’s Basketball Lives or Dies By Gold Standard

With their backs against the wall against Spain, Kevin Durant came to the rescue to lead his team to the Olympic semifinals.
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SAITAMA, Japan — As the men’s basketball competition heads to the medal round, Lilly King’s All Medal Are Good Medals Proclamation could be put to the test.

Last week the U.S. swimmer had this to say about how her country perceives Olympic medals other than gold: "Pardon my French, but the fact that we're not able to celebrate silver and bronze is bull----.” This stance was met with widespread popular approval in the U.S.—but is that same level of support extended to the American men’s basketball team? If all podium finishes are to be applauded, can our NBA contingent of perpetual overdogs really expect the same treatment if they fail to win it all?

Put it this way: Team captain and linchpin Kevin Durant doesn’t want to find out. He wanted no part of any congratulations for advancing to the semifinals Tuesday. “We’ve got to finish it,” Durant said, after leading the U.S. through a pretty vigorous Spanish Inquisition, 95–81. “We’re supposed to be here. For us, it’s about getting the gold.”

We will congratulate a silver medalist in weightlifting or a bronze medalist in dressage, no doubt. But hoops? This is where the nation historically has accepted no substitutes for the gold standard.

Ask the 1988 men’s team how people reacted to a bronze medal. That’s what led the U.S. to stop messing around with college kids and send in its best and brightest and richest in ’92. The Dream Team set the new gold standard: Win it all or die in the attempt.

Or ask the 2004 men’s team how people reacted to that bronze medal. That one led to the detonation of the entire system America used to select and coach its Olympic men’s team: Out went a committee, in went Jerry Colangelo; out went NBA head coaches, in went Mike Krzyzewski.

Sense a pattern? Fail to win gold, prepare for star-spangled outrage from torch-wielding mobs and calls to change the system. Nobody will care about the COVID-19 toll on the team. Nobody will care about an NBA playoffs that bled into late July and left even less time for this team to come together than usual. Nobody will remember the hodgepodge roster construction that left America short on power and rim protection.

This is life in the Olympic No Excuse Zone. And this is what the Americans will be up against when medal play commences Thursday at Saitama Super Arena.

For about a quarter against Spain, the U.S. appeared in danger of not even getting that far—which would have been a panic-in-the-streets development, since it has earned a medal in every Olympic men’s basketball tournament ever contested. The Americans found themselves down 10 points in the second quarter to the veteran Spaniards, and you could almost feel the pressure building. “We started to panic a little bit,” admitted forward Draymond Green.

USA player Kevin Durant (7) dunks against Spain during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games

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Here came Kevin Durant to the rescue. The captain and “best player in the world,” in the assessment of Green, alleviated the panic pretty much by himself. Trailing 43–36 late in the first half, he scored five quick points as America tied the game at halftime. Then in the third quarter, Durant hit three threes in rapid succession and then added a pair of free throws as the U.S. rocketed to a 16-point lead. He was in command of his game, and his teammates kept feeding him the ball.

“He was who we need him to be,” Green said. “Kevin’s a rhythm player. Figuring out that rhythm and flow, we’ve got that figured out.”

With a group of stars who have been deferring to one another so far, it’s time to get out of KD’s way and let him be the star of stars. In his first two games here, Durant scored 10 points in each while playing a total of 41 minutes. Then he upped it to 23 points in 27 minutes in America’s third game. Against Spain, it was 29 points in 31 minutes—and you can expect to see that kind of workload from here on.

“We’re in a good spot right now,” Durant said. “Guys are starting to understand their roles.”

Ricky Rubio, who should play every NBA game like he’s wearing an “España” jersey, tried to drag his team back into it, scoring 38 points. But in the end he didn’t have the sidekicks to pull it off—not with the aging Gasol brothers providing little and being matchup liabilities against the quicker Americans.

“Of course they’re 10 times more talented than any other team here,” said Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo, painting the U.S. into that expectation corner. “But they share the ball, they play good defense, they compete. So compliments to them.”

For a team that flailed through its short exhibition slate and then lost its Olympic opener to France, the aura of American invincibility is gone. What awaits the U.S. now are at least one and likely two more daunting opponents. The opposite side of the bracket features unbeaten Slovenia, led by NBA star Luka Dončić, and unbeaten France. But first: To even reach the gold medal game the Americans must face the winner of unbeaten Australia vs. Argentina.

Even facing quality competition, the U.S. stand apart in terms of upside. Since that debacle against France, they have rolled to three straight double-figure wins—and beating Spain matters in international basketball, because that country has been in the mix in all major recent competitions.

“We feel absolutely great about the victory,” coach Gregg Popovich said, “while knowing full well there’s a lot of work to be done.”

The goal is gold. Falling short would produce an interesting sociological experiment. Noble and sensible in theory, it nevertheless seems unlikely that the Lilly King Proclamation would be applied by the American public to men’s basketball.

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