With just under seven minutes left in the third quarter of the final Group A game of the men’s Olympic basketball tournament, United States star Kevin Durant lost his handle on the ball. As it slipped away from him, his team held a mere six-point lead over the Czech Republic. He’d broken an impressive record and had played brilliantly, but he had little company among his teammates.
Durant moved to retrieve the ball, and Czech Republic guard Tomas Satoransky came from the opposite direction — except Satoransky’s path carried him directly through Durant’s face. The collision drew a whistle, and a foul was called on Durant as he checked to see if all of his incisors and bicuspids were in their proper places.
Durant is the most important American player at this tournament. If Team USA is going to win a fourth consecutive gold medal in men’s basketball, he is going to have to do it for this squad because he is being required to compensate for so many roster issues, to function at various times as a point guard, center and high-scoring wing.
What had been an inert performance by the U.S., to that point, suddenly became animated. The Americans’ approach then could best be described as: Don’t get even, get mad.
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Soon came the unsportsmanlike foul called against Draymond Green when it appeared he was trying to be sportsmanlike, and then Durant getting plowed over the baseline on a breakaway layup. Though all of these calls either presented momentary opportunities to the Czechs or prevented minor calamities, they all fed into a U.S. team that had pretty much had enough. By the end of 40 minutes, it was USA 119, Czech Republic 84.
From the moment Durant got whacked in the face until the third period mercifully ended, the United States scored 29 points, the Czech Republic just 13. Things only got worse in the fourth quarter, a period spent resting Durant, feeding the confidence of Jayson Tatum and building the point differential to help get the Americans an advantaged seed in the quarterfinal round that starts Tuesday. Team USA made 21 of its first 25 second-half shots.
“The last two games, we’ve been playing basketball how we know we could play,” reserve wing Keldon Johnson said afterward. “First game, we were a little stagnant, a little hesitant. But as you’ve seen the last few games, we are playing freely and having fun.”
Durant’s sixth point against the Czechs broke the career record for U.S. men’s Olympians. That list includes Michael Jordan, David Robinson, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the player Durant passed with a 3-pointer in transition in the second quarter. By halftime, he had 14 points, but the U.S. only held a 47-43 lead.
“We started off slow, but I think we got to what we wanted to do there in that second quarter, which is speed them up on defense and get out in transition and score some easy points,” Durant told NBC Sports. “And our guys were special tonight. Guys got to their points and knocked shots down.”
Nobody more so than Tatum, who averaged 26.4 points for the Celtics last season in the NBA but had made only three of his 12 attempts from the shorter 3-point line in the Olympic Games prior to Saturday.
“I just told Jayson to act like he’s playing the Spurs,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “Every time he plays against us, he scores 90.”
Tatum nailed as many threes in the final five minutes of this game as he had in the first 80 minutes of the Olympics. He scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, 21 following the Durant collision and 27 for the game.
“It felt good to just see some shots go in,” Tatum told NBC Sports. “I think we’re playing better each and every game, and that’s what we expected: to be better than we were last game throughout this tournament. On any given night, any guy on our team can do what I did tonight. I think that’s what makes us so dynamic.”
The problem if that’s going to be the approach — and it certainly seemed that way as the U.S. misspent an abundance of early possessions on one-pass shots or pull-ups by the player advancing the ball — is how to discover which player is going to deliver that “any given night” before the opposition has put the Americans in an uncomfortable position.
That’s where Durant has to be Durant. He must be the player he was from the start against the Czechs. When he departed the game, he was leading the team in points, rebounds and assists. He finished with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting and with a team-best eight rebounds and six assists.
The team’s point guard, Damian Lillard, is better at conjuring his own shots than those of teammates, and so Durant compensates for that. The team’s centers are 6-8 Draymond Green and 6-9 Bam Adebayo, and they faced 7-footers in each of the three Group A games. So Durant helps there, with both rebounding and defending.
There is no way to know at this point to know who the Americans will play next. The quarterfinal matchups will be established by draw so that no teams could be tempted to tank a game to avoid a particular opponent in single-elimination play.
The top teams in each of the three groups — France, Australia and the winner of Sunday’s alluring Group C game between Spain and Slovenia — will be seeded and so will the best second-place team. Italy, the U.S. and whoever losses that Group C finale will have 2-1 records, so the tiebreaker is point differential. After wrecking Iran and the Czechs, the Americans have outscored their opponents by a combined 82 points. They are safe at No. 4, but challengers await in the knockout stage.
Popovich did a poor job in the opening loss to France of protecting Durant from foul trouble and thus got only 20 minutes from him. That can’t be afforded again.