Kevin Durant didn’t have to play. Who would have blamed him? Two years removed from an Achilles tear, two months removed from a 40 minutes per game stretch in the playoffs, Durant could have begged off these Olympics, could have told Jerry Colangelo, thanks, but he’ll see you, er, or Grant Hill, in three years.
But Durant did play.
And, honestly—where would USA Basketball be without him?
It was the United States 97, Australia 78 in the semifinals of the men’s basketball tournament, but that score doesn’t come close to telling the full story. The final box shows a great game from Devin Booker (20 points). From Jrue Holiday (11 points, eight assists). From Khris Middleton (11 points). It will show a defensive effort that held Australia to ten points in the third quarter and an offense that connected on seven three-pointers in the second half.
But this game wasn’t about that.
This game was about Kevin Durant.
For the first 15 minutes of the FIBA-rules 40-minute game, the U.S. was a disaster. The three-point shot—Team USA’s primary offensive weapon—wasn’t falling. The first ten missed. The 11th didn’t connect until there was a little more than three-minutes to play in the second quarter. They kicked the ball away. The offense sputtered. The defense couldn’t keep Joe Ingles and Chris Goulding off the three-point line.
Durant’s final line, for posterity: 23 points, nine-rebounds. His total impact: A lot more. With the U.S. looking flustered in the first half, Durant seized control. He scored 15 of the U.S. 42 points in the first half. He had eight points in the first six minutes of the third, sparking a 32-10 run that all but put the game out of reach. Defensively, Durant was all over the floor, forcing Nick Kay into turnovers on the perimeter, denying new Spur Jock Landale at the rim, joining a group effort to stifle tournament star—and Durant’s new Brooklyn teammate—Patty Mills into a miserable (5-14) shooting night.
“Teams try to get us down early, hoping we panic,” Durant said. “We didn’t.”
Durant is arguably the best player in the NBA, which would make him (arguably) the best player in the world. And with two Olympic gold medals in his pocket and a shot at a third on the way, Durant can make another case: The best USA Basketball player of all-time.
Michael Jordan can certainly make an argument, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and other members of the Redeem Team can, too, but Durant is building a legacy. He is the leading scorer in USA Basketball history. He is the first men’s player to pass the 400-point scoring mark in the Olympics. He led Team USA in scoring in 2012, '16 and in these Olympics, he has probably saved the U.S. from embarrassment. His 29 points in the quarterfinals likely prevented elimination against Spain and his presence against Australia stopped Joe Ingles and Co. from moving on.
Durant’s legacy will be many things. It will be years of success in Oklahoma City. It will be a pair of NBA championships in Golden State. Durant has played just one season in Brooklyn, but the early returns suggest he will find plenty of success there as well.
But what Durant has done for USA Basketball over the last eleven years—did we mention the 23 points per game Durant averaged for the gold medal winning U.S. team in the 2010 FIBA World Championships?—ensures that this will be a key piece of his legacy, too. In Tokyo, Durant has been the driving force for a hastily pieced together U.S. team that has needed every second of his brilliance. When he steps on the floor, he dominates both ends of it.
The U.S. will play France for the gold medal on Saturday.
If they win, there will likely be many reasons.
You can bet one of them will be Kevin Durant.
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