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 Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - NEWS - Jonathan Liew in Rio de Janeiro

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.

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