Kevin Durant is a hooper. He just wanted to play.
Nobody would have said a word if he chose to sit out the Tokyo Olympics. The man had just battled through an injury-filled, grueling, condensed season, his first back after a ruptured Achilles. He already had two Olympic and one World Championship gold. Going to these COVID-scarred Olympics also meant no family could come with him, it was basically three weeks in a bubble again.
Durant is a hooper and wanted to play — and Team USA doesn’t win gold without him.
“We went through real adversity,” Durant said in his walk-off interview on NBC. “We lost a game in the tournament, we lost two exhibition games, we had some unusual circumstances with COVID, guys playing in the Finals and coming in late, and we just fought through everything. Two-and-a-half weeks away from our families, basically in a bubble, it was definitely different, but I’m glad we finished the job.”
Durant led that finishing. While the rest of the Team USA offense waivered in the first half of the gold medal game against France, Durant kept the USA afloat, scoring 12 of the team’s first 18 points and putting up 21 by the half. KD finished the game with 29
Combine Durant’s scoring with the best and most consistent defense Team USA played all Olympics — led by another strong night from Jrue Holiday — and the Americans held off a resilient French team to win 87-82.
Team USA won its fourth straight Olympic gold medal.
Solid gold celebration 🇺🇸🥇@TeamUSA 🏀 #TokyoOlympics pic.twitter.com/kEBvWZbDM3
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) August 7, 2021
It was a long journey for this USA team, one that lost to Nigeria and Australia in Olympic tune-ups in Las Vegas — that team that looked lost defensively and lacked an offensive pecking order and identity. Gregg Popovich’s critics came out of the woodwork, players took criticism online, and Americans’ sense of entitlement about the gold medal in basketball was shattered.
It should be shattered — the rest of the world is catching up and France is the perfect example of that.
They have three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who was phenominal on both ends in the gold medal game, finishing with 16 points and eight rebounds (he punished the USA defensive switches all game). Gobert was emotional after it was over and clearly crushed by the loss.
Beyond the 7’2″ center, there is plenty of scoring in the form of the Knicks’ Evan Fournier (16 points), the Nets Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (11), the Clippers Nicolas Batum, and former NBA player Nando de Calo (12). The French are a mentally tough team; we saw that when they outscored Team USA 16-2 to close out their pool play matchup and hand the Americans their first Olympics loss in nearly two decades. We saw it again in the gold medal game when they made a push back every time the USA threatened to run away — France played through the American pressure, they were not shaken by it.
But this was a different American team than the one that lost to France in their Olympic opener or Nigeria and Australia in Las Vegas exhibitions. The USA had become a team, one that was sharp defensively and understood their offensive roles. Durant gets some credit for that, accepting the role as the go-to shot creator and scorer on a team loaded with guys paid a lot of money to do that in the NBA. USA coach Popovich deserves some credit, too.
“I can be honest and say this is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt,” Popovich said after the game, via the AP. “You’re playing for so many people that are watching, and for a country, and other countries involved. The responsibility was awesome. I felt it every day for several years now. I’m feeling pretty light now and looking forward to getting back to the hotel.”
It was a pretty amazing day for Durant, who agreed to a $198 million extension with the Nets earlier in the day, then went out and won gold. That’s also three golds for Durant, who during the Tokyo Games became the USA’s all-time leading scorer in Olympic competition (passing Carmelo Anthony).
The USA was more than just KD. Jrue Holiday was brilliant defensively all Olympics, which is pretty amazing considering he had just done the same thing in the NBA Finals, celebrated with a championship parade in Milwaukee, then hopped on a plane and was in Tokyo 48 hours later. Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Devin Booker all deserve credit for the Finals-to-Tokyo turnaround.
Maybe the player that saw the most growth during the Olympics was Jayson Tatum, who scored 19 off the bench in the gold medal game. On Friday night, you could see how much his teammates trusted him to take on scoring load, to get open and run the offense, and be the secondary scoring option for the team.
For an American team that was expected to win gold, it was an unconventional and difficult road. But in the end, it was another American gold.
In large part because Kevin Durant is a hooper.