The gap between international and American basketball might be closing, but the gap between Kevin Durant and every other scorer, if not player, in the world right now is as big as ever. Durant, who is arguably the greatest Olympic player in United States history, led Team USA past France, 87-82, on Friday with 29 points as the Americans secured their fourth straight gold medal.
Yet again, the U.S. started slowly. It couldn't hit any 3s in the early going, and France looked comfortable getting buckets. But Durant didn't mess around for long. Throwing that whole "let the game come to you" adage out the window, he started cooking when Team USA couldn't find a bucket elsewhere. Through three quarters, he couldn't be stopped. By the time France started icing him out in the fourth, it was a little too late.
"We tried to make him work as hard as we can, but he's Kevin Durant," France center Rudy Gobert said. "He's going to hit shots that only him, in the world, can hit. ... I think he's the best scorer in basketball. He's going to do what he does, especially on the biggest stage."
Dating back to 2012, Durant, who joins Carmelo Anthony as the only U.S. players with three Olympic gold medals, has scored 30, 30 and 29 points in those three gold-medal games. His name will be, and should be, at the top of every story about this team.
But Jrue Holiday's name shouldn't be far behind.
This is not a feat you see often, an NBA title and gold medal in the same year, and Holiday, for my money, was the second-most valuable player over the course of both runs. After flipping the NBA Finals with his defense on Chris Paul, Holiday put on another defensive clinic for the ages in these Games. It's honestly hard to even put it into words. His pressure on the ball, his ability, and his willingness, to get over screens, to chase plays from behind and get a hand in passing lanes, it's almost beyond belief.
Holiday was also huge offensively for Team USA. He finished with 11 points and five rebounds on 5-of-13 shooting, which looks like a fairly pedestrian line. But Holiday's physical aggression was almost as evident as his defense throughout this tournament. He sets a tone, creates downhill leverage, and does not hesitate to fire 3s even when they're not falling, which keeps the USA's offense moving on schedule.
Two numbers tell the tale of Holiday's gold-medal game: Three steals and 30 minutes. Durant was the only other U.S. player to go over 30 minutes, which tells you how indispensable Holiday was for a team littered with star power. Gregg Popovich simply couldn't afford to have Holiday off the court for any length of time.
The three steals speak to Holiday's defensive activity but don't do a shred of justice to his overall impact. He made life hell on France's top scorer, Evan Fournier, who was held to 33-percent shooting, including 2-for-9 from 3. Fournier couldn't get even an inch of advantage trying to get downhill against Holiday. He couldn't get separation off of ball screens. At times, he could hardly keep from being forced back over the half-court line as Holiday bodied him 45 feet from the basket.
Holiday and Khris Middleton are the first teammates to win an NBA championship and a gold medal in the same year since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1992.
"Definitely a great summer," Holiday said after the win.
France made this a game by going not just big, but huge, with twin seven-footers Rudy Gobert and Moustapha Fall. The Americans, as they have done all tournament, switched everything defensively, and France hunted smaller defenders stuck trying to defend the twin towers mercilessly. Gobert, who would love to be as prioritized in the Utah Jazz's offense as he is for the French national team, finished with 16 points on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting. He sealed deep and rolled hard and was given the green light to back his way under the basket until the U.S. was forced to foul him.
And that's where the trouble began. Gobert finished just 6-for-13 from the free-throw line. He was arguably the second-most valuable player in this game, third at worst if you want to say Holiday behind Durant, but that doesn't change the fact that Gobert had a legit chance to lead France to a gold medal had he been able to have a great night at the free-throw line. It would've been an anomaly for a low-60-percent charity striper, but unlikely events are the fabric of upsets. It was there for Gobert and France.
But in the end, the U.S. was just the superior team, both at the top end and from a depth standpoint. In most ways, it felt like France was lucky to be in this game, down just five at halftime and eight heading into the fourth quarter after the U.S. was threatening to run away to close both the second and third quarters.
Jayson Tatum was second to Durant with 19 points. He hit from the outside and got into the paint for a couple of fallaways and a jump hook off the glass. It was telling when Durant, who was feeling it and clearly was in takeover mode from the start, deferred to Tatum more than once when a mismatch presented itself, and Tatum attacked without hesitation. It won't be long before Tatum is a top-10 player in the world.
Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green were terrific defensively and both made sweet deliveries off the short roll for layups and dunks -- Green finding Zach LaVine and Adebayo hitting Durant with a backdoor bounce pass for an and-1 flush. Devin Booker and LaVine, both go-to scorers for the Suns and Bulls, respectively, took a backseat offensively and actually made their biggest impact on the defensive end. They were strong and sturdy and only situationally looked to score.
Damian Lillard, who struggled pretty much the entire time in Tokyo, finally found some rhythm late and hit a couple of big buckets to make his line look a little better (4-for-11 for 11 points). Apparently, some of Lillard's struggles can be explained by an injury he was fighting through.
Sources: Damian Lillard played through an abdomen injury during Team USA’s Tokyo Olympics run, which will require further testing upon return to the States. Lillard wanted to continue playing to help USA capture the gold medal.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 7, 2021
"I think it's more joy than relief, but definitely some relief," Lillard said. "Because of the expectations that get placed on Team USA, obviously it's going to be some relief."
Certainly, Lillard would've liked to play better, but ultimately this was about getting a gold medal, which was no sure thing. Team USA lost its group-play opener to France and had to fight every minute to escape the rematch. People saying the U.S. don't need to send star players to the Olympics weren't watching this tournament. If Durant wasn't there, this could've been a different story. Fortunately for Team USA, he was there, ever embracing the big stage and his responsibility to own it. What a player. And what a night for the Americans.