TOKYO — Kevin Durant wrapped in Old Glory after more Olympic glory was the fitting final visual from the men’s basketball competition at the Tokyo Games. The U.S. doesn’t win this gold medal without Captain America, and probably doesn’t even come close.
This wasn’t the romp in Rio, when the U.S. won all eight of its games by an average margin of 21.3 points. This wasn’t the lopsided run through London, where the margin of victory was 31.1. Nor was it the blowout in Beijing (27.9). This was harder than all of those, with exhibition upsets and an opening loss to France and double-digit deficits in both the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. The five-point margin in the gold-medal victory over France, 87-82, was the closest since the infamous 1972 final, when the Soviet Union robbed the U.S. of gold by a point.
The Tokyo tournament was tense and tight. The roster was flawed and the timing was bad, with the NBA season running well into July. America hasn’t been this vulnerable in men’s hoops since LeBron James was a teenager. But behind Durant, the result was what the nation always demands from its Olympic basketball teams: come home with gold medals.
"I hate to compare stuff because everything has its own moment,” Durant said. “But this is one of those special journeys that is hard to describe. Each and every one of us put in that work every single day. We all came in with that goal of, ‘Let’s finish this thing off, let's build a family, let's build and grow this team every single day.’ Each game we continued to grow. It was just that journey which was so important.”
The consensus has been building during this tournament that Durant is the best U.S. Olympic men's basketball player of all time. He is the leading scorer in the country's Olympic history, and with three gold medals it’s hard to argue against his body of work.
Durant was America’s leading scorer in 2012 and in ’16, and he was again here. This time, his 20.7 points per game were more valuable. They were needed to get the job done. He upped the average to 27 per game in the knockout round, when a loss would have stopped the quest for gold. He was superhuman in the first half Saturday, scoring 21 points before France did everything it could to hold him to eight in the second half.
"Kevin Durant is amazing,” said France’s Nando de Colo. “You put a big on him, he's able to drive. You put a small guy on him and he's able to shoot over him. All my teammates did their best, but it is really difficult.”
As we edge closer to dousing the flame here in Tokyo, Durant stands alongside swimmer Caeleb Dressel as the American male stars of these Olympics. Outside of the pool, where American men won eight golds, there haven’t been many others who seized the moment like Durant and Dressel have. (Though kudos to heavyweight wrestler Gable Steveson for his dramatic, last-second gold medal.)
Through the end of the men’s basketball tournament, U.S. male athletes had won just 36 total medals, a far weaker mark than the women's 60 (mixed events not included.)
While 36 medals is a lot compared to most countries, it’s not compared to the U.S.'s own standards. Team USA has averaged 52 in the previous four Summer Games. And only 16 of those 36 are gold.
Entering Saturday, shot putter Ryan Crouser was the only American man with a gold at the track and field venue, with so many runners making the podium but falling short of the top step. The men’s gymnastics team won zero medals for the third straight Olympics. Indoor volleyball didn’t make it out of pool play, and beach volleyball was dismissed short of the quarterfinals. The men’s soccer team didn’t even qualify for these Games. (Baseball has provided some excitement and is playing for gold later Saturday.)
So, yeah, there was some pressure on the basketball team. Especially when the entire enterprise got off to such a rocky start, with dismal losses in exhibition games and then that opening defeat against France.
“It's sort of an out-of-body experience when you're in these games,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “You compete. Once the ball goes up you don't think about it anymore, you just compete. But it's before the game that's horrible. You're thinking about did you skip any steps, what else the other team can do to you, what do we have to do. Those are the tough moments.
“I can be honest and say this is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt. … The responsibility was awesome. I felt it every day for several years now. I'm feeling pretty light now."
Popovich said he was looking forward to getting back to the team hotel and “drinking … something.” He should pour a tall one for Durant first.
His NBA career spans all the way back to when Seattle had a franchise, but he’s often been overshadowed—first by Kobe Bryant, more recently by Giannis Antetokounmpo and perpetually by LeBron James. There has been some criticism of him as a team hopper who only wants to play with fellow superstars, which overlooks the fact that he played his first nine seasons with the same franchise and pulled the sled pretty tirelessly in Oklahoma City.
Nobody would have blamed Durant if he sat this Olympics out. In late June he was coming off a disappointing ending to the NBA season, averaging 45 minutes a game for the Brooklyn Nets in a rugged series against Milwaukee. At age 32, with a major achilles injury not too deep in his past, Durant came to Tokyo because he wanted to.
And, as usual, Durant immersed himself in the Olympics as best as one can here. He took part in the Opening Ceremony and took pictures before and after with his fellow athletes. He did a short video on Instagram Live before the ceremony wherein he chided teammate Jerami Grant, saying he needed to “show more enthusiasm,” and pointed out that everyone was pouring sweat in their Ralph Lauren uniforms, but “it’s an important cause out here.”
Captain America rallied his team for the cause Saturday. In an Olympics where heroic performances by U.S. men have been rare, Kevin Durant came through when his country needed it. That flag looked good draped across his slender shoulders.
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