Saturday, November 27

Kevin Durant must lead flawed team USA to fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal

With just under seven minutes to go in the third quarter of the final Group A game of the men’s Olympic basketball tournament, American star Kevin Durant lost control of the ball. As he slipped away, his team held just six points ahead of the Czech Republic. He had set an impressive record and played brilliantly, but had little company among his teammates.

Durant moved to retrieve the ball, and Czech Republic guard Tomas Satoransky came from the opposite direction, except that Satoransky’s path took him straight through Durant’s face. The collision caused a hiss and Durant was fouled as he checked to see if all of his incisors and premolars were in their correct places.

Durant is the most important American player in this tournament. If the USA team is going to win a fourth consecutive gold medal in men’s basketball, it will have to do so for this team because it is required to make up for so many problems with the roster, to function at various points as point guard. center wing and high scoring.

What had been an inert performance from America, up until that point, suddenly perked up. So the Americans’ approach could best be described as: Don’t take it out, rage.

OLYMPIC CLASSIFICATION: Updated results for the 2021 men’s tournament category

Soon came the unsportsmanlike foul called against Draymond Green when it looked like he was trying to be a jock, and then Durant was brought down over the baseline on a breakaway layup. While all of these calls presented momentary opportunities for the Czechs or averted minor calamities, they all fed a US team that had had enough. At the end of 40 minutes, it was United States 119, Czech Republic 84.

From the moment Durant was hit 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 Durant spent resting, fueling confidence. by Jayson Tatum. and building the point spread to help the Americans get an advantageous seed in the quarterfinal round that begins Tuesday. Team USA made 21 of their first 25 shots in the second half.

“In the last two games, we’ve been playing basketball like we know we could play,” backup end Keldon Johnson later said. “In the first game, we were a little stuck, a little indecisive. But as you have seen the last games, we are playing freely and having fun.”

Durant’s sixth point against the Czechs broke the career record for US male Olympians. That list includes Michael Jordan, David Robinson, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the player Durant passed with a transition 3-pointer in the second quarter. At halftime, he had 14 points, but the United States only had a 47-43 lead.

“We started slow, but I think we got to what we wanted to do there in that second quarter, which is speed up the defense and come out in transition and score some easy points,” Durant told NBC Sports. “And our guys were special tonight. The guys got to their points and made shots.”

No one but Tatum, who averaged 26.4 points for the Celtics last season in the NBA, but had made just three of his 12 attempts from the shortest 3-point line at the Olympics before Saturday.

“I told Jayson to act like he’s playing Spurs,” United States coach Gregg Popovich said in his post-game press conference. “Every time he plays against us, he scores 90.”

Tatum nailed as many 3-pointers in the last five minutes of this game as he did in the first 80 minutes of the Olympics. He scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, 21 after the Durant collision and 27 in the game.

“It felt good to see some shots come in,” Tatum told NBC Sports. “I think we are playing better in each and every game, and that is what we expected: to be better than the last game during this tournament. On any given night, any player 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 focus, and it certainly seemed that way, as the US wasted a lot of early possessions on single-pass shots or pull-ups from the player advancing the ball, is how to figure out what player is going to deliver that “any night” before the opposition has put the Americans in an awkward position.

That’s where Durant has to be Durant. He must be the player who was from the beginning against the Czechs. When he left the game, he was leading the team in points, rebounds and assists. He finished with 23 points on 8 of 11 shots and with eight rebounds and six assists, the best on the team.

The team’s point guard Damian Lillard is better at conjuring his own shots than his teammates, so Durant makes up for it. The team’s centers are 6-8 Draymond Green and 6-9 Bam Adebayo, and they faced the 7-footer in each of the three Group A games. So Durant helps there, both on rebounding and defense.

There is no way of knowing at this point who the Americans will play next. Quarterfinal matchups will be established by draw so that no team may be tempted to drop a game to avoid a particular opponent in a single elimination game.

The best teams from each of the three groups (France, Australia and the winner of Sunday’s attractive Group C match between Spain and Slovenia) will be seeded and also the best team in second place. Italy, USA and whoever loses that Group C final will have records of 2-1, so the tiebreaker is the point differential. After defeating 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 protecting Durant from foul trouble and thus only got 20 minutes from him. That cannot be allowed again.

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