Another Olympics, another gold medal for USA men's basketball.
Except this was not just another Olympics.
And this was not just another gold medal.
Final score: U.S. 87, France 82 in the Olympic final, in a game exactly as close as the score suggests. France led early, leaning on diverse scoring (five French players finished in double figures) and a sturdy defense. The U.S., as it has done this entire tournament, ramped up the offense in the third quarter. France hung around though, with timely threes from Guerschon Yabusele (the ex-Celtic) Frank Ntilikina (the ex-Knick) and Evan Fournier (the current Knick) keeping it close. It wasn’t until the closing seconds, when Nic Batum’s corner three bounced off, that Team USA could celebrate.
And celebrate they should. If 2008 was the most significant gold medal in modern USA Basketball history, this one is right behind it. If ’92 was the Dream Team, ’08 was the Redeem Team, this was the Achieve Team. Flow issues aside, it’s fitting. The U.S. was the three-time defending Olympic champion entering Tokyo. But they finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. They lost to Nigeria in the exhibition opener. They were smacked around by Australia in the next one. In the first game of group play, France beat them by seven.
And now they are gold medalists.
Looking for reasons why the U.S. is wearing gold? Start with Kevin Durant. It’s no longer a bold statement to call Durant the greatest player in USA Basketball history. It’s fact. Durant is a three-time gold medalist, matching Carmelo Anthony for the most medals in men’s competitions. Earlier in these Olympics, he passed Anthony on the all-time scoring list. He’s the only U.S. men’s player in history to score more than 400 points. And after scoring 30 points in the gold medal game in 2012, 30 again in 2016, Durant was one point shy (29) of making it three straight.
Continue with Jrue Holiday. No one knew what to expect of Holiday, who touched down in Tokyo hours before the tournament opener. But Holiday picked up right where he left off in the NBA Finals, hounding opponents' lead guards (Fournier won’t be eager for future matchups with Milwaukee), dipping into the passing lanes, knocking down timely shots. Holiday’s final line against France: 11 points, five rebounds and three steals. His impact was far greater.
Look to Jayson Tatum and Damian Lillard, Adebayo and Draymond Green. Tatum thrived in a sixth man role for the U.S. He scored 27 points against the Czech Republic in group play, scored seven straight to help put away Spain in the quarterfinal and finished with 19 against France. Lillard battled through shooting slumps in the Olympics, but his two jumpers midway through the fourth quarter on Saturday stopped a France run. Adebayo and Green spent most of the Olympics battling against bigger centers—and finding success doing it.
Look to Gregg Popovich. How many watched the early U.S. games and wondered if Pop was the right coach? Who mumbled that the seventh-place finish in ’19 foreshadowed Olympic disaster? Who thought that, despite all of Popovich’s NBA success, the international game had passed the 72-year-old coach by? Popovich, unsurprisingly, was unfazed. He tinkered with his rotations, tweaked his offensive sets, and remained even-keeled as the losses piled up. The result: a five-time NBA champion now has a gold medal in his trophy case.
Look to Jerry Colangelo. Colangelo’s 16-year run atop USA Basketball ends this summer. At times, he made it look easy. It wasn’t. The U.S. team was a mess when Colangelo took over in 2005. He secured three-year commitments from some of the NBA’s best players, navigated difficult roster decisions, hired the right coach (Mike Krzyzewski), and then hired another (Popovich). He pieced together a roster during a pandemic and shook it up when he needed to. Understand—the days of USA Basketball obliterating opponents as they did in the 1990’s are over. But under Colangelo, the U.S. has reclaimed its place at the top of the food chain.
Decades from now, history won’t differentiate the ’21 gold from any others. Those that watched and remember will. This team wasn’t a dream group of players and it didn’t need to redemption from anything. But in fighting through adversity, in avenging its defeats, in clawing back against global competition that no longer fears the U-S-A on the jersey, it did something equally as significant.
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