Durant shines brightest as US put on one final show
America cruise to third straight basketball gold Golden State star leads the way with 30 points
The United States won their third straight Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball last night. They beat Serbia 96-66 to claim their 53rd consecutive win in internationals, which includes a 25-game streak at the Olympics.
These are the bare facts of the matter, but in a sense also the least interesting. Of course America won. Saying “America won the basketball” is a phrase as redundant as “the sun rose this morning” or “Taylor Swift was photographed in a public place”. They have most of the sport’s best players and the only league most people have heard of. Nobody, least of all America, ever expects them to lose.
Olympic basketball needs America, but what people forget is that American basketball needs the Olympics as well.
The country’s professional sporting apparatus, with its hermetically sealed leagues and self-contained storylines, offers lamentably few opportunities to test its virility against other nations. America has always known it is the greatest country on Earth. But every once in a while, they like to let everybody know it as well.
And so in a sense, America’s approach to Olympic basketball is similar to its approach to war. It measures success not in terms of victory or defeat, but in terms of shock and awe: how big the bomb crater, how many the body count, how spectacular the trail of destruction. And here, it stumbles upon a problem. No US teams have ever come close to the Dream Team of 1992, who won by an average of 44 points per game. Here, their path to the final was characterised by narrow victories and a watertight defence. But watertight defence is not why NBC paid £9.2 billion for the television rights.
So this, at least, was something. At the end of a largely uninspiring tournament, marked by an absence of great players and great teams, the US finally gave the people what they wanted. They benefited from a sadly mediocre Serbia, who barely snaffled a rebound all night and only sank four three-pointers in the whole game. But they won well. And moreover, they put on a show.
This may not be a US team of the JordanJohnson-Bird vintage, but anybody who describes them as dull or ugly simply has not been paying enough attention. I liked watching Kyle Lowry putting a poor Serbian guard on his backside with a dribble that simultaneously seemed to be going in eight directions. I liked watching the flamboyant Paul George, who tried a spectacular reverse slam dunk, missed, and then gestured to his teammates that it was somehow their fault. I liked watching veteran coach Mike Krzyzewski going mental on the sidelines, barking incomprehensible one-word orders to his troops on defence: “Get up! Sit! Off!” Krzyzewski is 69 years old and this was his last Olympic game. I like to think his doctor told him to sit the next one out. Most of all, I liked watching Kevin Durant. Now, I know comparatively little about basketball. And sometimes when you are relatively new to a sport, it can be hard to detect the fine margins and granular textures that separate the merely excellent from the sublime. You could watch Spain’s football team for years without realising that Xavi, the little unassuming bloke in the centre, was actually the heartbeat of the team. You could watch Sachin Tendulkar for an entire Test series and not Dream team: Harrison Barnes rises to shoot for the US (right) and Kevin Durant (below) shows off his medal get close to grasping the essence of his greatness.
This is not a problem you have with Durant. The small forward (actually 6ft 9in) for the Golden State Warriors was not just the best player on the court. He looked it, and he knew it. He scored 30 points despite spending most of the final quarter on the bench. He made three-pointers as effortlessly as drinking soup. He made a dunk that brought the entire US bench to their feet. He dived through forests of defenders as if he had plotted their every move, his brain performing a million whirring calculations. Where is my momentum taking me? Where is this guy’s momentum taking him? Where will he be in half a second? If I feint left, can I squeeze past his shoulder to the right? And where is the basket?
Always: where is the basket? At the end of the third quarter, as Lowry’s shot bounced clear, Durant dived at the loose ball and slapped it with his open palm. It was out of time. But of course it went in. Durant shuffled back to the bench, chuckling at his own genius.
Somehow, even in this Games of a thousand stars, the stars of the NBA still manage to shine brightest of all. So yes, America, you are the best at basketball. And yes, you can entertain us as well. See you again in four years. And bring Durant with you.