If there were any doubts that Kevin Durant was back near the top of list of best basketball players in the world, they were all extinguished during the 2021 NBA playoffs and the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Durant was nothing short of spectacular during the men’s basketball tournament at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. The baller known as the Slim Reaper put USA Basketball on his back, leading Team USA to an 87-82 victory over France in the gold-medal game.
It was Team USA’s fourth straight Olympic gold medal and its 16th gold medal in 19 Olympics. Durant joined Carmelo Anthony as the only three-time gold medalists in Olympic basketball history. Durant also became USA Basketball’s all-time leading scorer, passing Anthony. It could be argued that Durant is the best player to ever wear the Red, White, and Blue.
Throughout the Olympic tournament, Durant was the one constant positive force on a squad that was put together in a month. Head coach Gregg Popovich didn’t have his full complement of players up until the first game against France on July 25. Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Devin Booker flew into Tokyo just a couple of days after finishing a brutal six-game series in the NBA Finals. They barely had time to get to know their Olympic teammates, yet alone figure out Popovich’s game plan.
The Olympics started off on a bad note for the Americans, losing to France in the opener 83-76. It was the first loss by an American squad in the Olympics since 2004. The team went unbeaten under coach Mike Krzyzewski in 2008, 2012, and 2016 on their way to three straight golds.
“There are more great players all over the world. That’s pretty obvious,” Popovich said prior to the start of the Tokyo Games. “There are more and more foreign players in the NBA. Every year they go back and play for their home countries as they should. It makes the competition even greater. Makes it more challenging for everybody, including us. But that’s a wonderful thing. Obviously the international has grown, and people love it.”
Popovich added, “When you have an opportunity like this, you respect the people you’re playing and you play as hard and as well as you can. But there’s no doubting that are more and more great players every single year around the globe.”
Despite Team USA’s lack of size and lack of cohesion, Popovich had one ace card he could always pull out whenever he needed. The ace card wore No. 7 in red, white, and blue colors.
Durant was absolutely brilliant. He cruised through pool play, allowing the other guys like Jayson Tatum, Damian Lillard, and Zach LaVine to get their shine. But once the knockout round began, KD put on the Captain America suit and saved the day — saved the entire USA Basketball program, actually. Anything less than a gold medal would have been considered a monumental disappointment and major setback for the USA Basketball program, which enjoyed a remarkable 12-year run under Coach K but endured a few stumbles under Popovich.
The U.S. failed to medal in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, and dropped two exhibition games heading into Tokyo.
“We went through some real adversity. 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. We just fought through everything,” Durant told NBC’s Maria Taylor after the U.S. completed the tournament with a 7-1 record.
“Two and half weeks again from our families. We’re basically in a bubble,” Durant said. “It was definitely different. I’m glad we finished the job.”
Whenever the U.S. fell behind in the knockout round, it was Durant who bailed them out. KD scored 29 points in the quarterfinals against Spain, the No. 2 ranked team in the workd and reigning world champs. KD scored 23 in the semifinals against Australia, the same squad that embarrassed the U.S. in Las Vegas. In the gold-medal game against France, Durant finished with a game-high 29 points. He made nine of 18 shots from the field and iced the game with two clutch free throws with 8.8 seconds left.
“France is a good team. They don’t quit. They play hard. They’re a big team,” Durant said of the silver medalists, which were led by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, the NBA’s defensive player of the year.
“They presented a nice challenge for us,” Durant said. “But we wanted them again. We wanted to play them again, just like we wanted to play Australia again.”
Gobert and a defensive-minded French national team didn’t make it easy for the U.S. The game was up for grabs until late in the fourth quarter when the Americans were able to cobble enough winning plays, with timely baskets from Durant and Lillard and hustle plays from Holiday and Draymond Green.
“It’s winning time. It’s one game. It’s win or go home. I gotta give it my all every second I’m out there,” Durant said. “I’ve prepared the right way. I just gotta go out there and trust that work.”
Popovich called this version of Team USA a “high-character” and “high-spirited” group that worked very hard and understood the challenge. Those are nice compliments, but high character and high spirit might earn yourself a bronze. Czech Republic guard Tomas Satoransky, who played against the U.S. in pool play, said the Americans’ biggest strength was “anyone can light it up.”
“They are the best team in the world,” Satoransky said. “I think the gap is getting smaller between USA Basketball and the rest of the world, but obviously they have the most skilled players.”
The gap may be closing between the U.S. and the rest of the world, but there is only one Kevin Durant and USA Basketball was sure glad he made the trip to Tokyo.