It used to be that the United States men’s basketball team could just overwhelm opponents with waves of talent.
Sure, they might have lost a game in an international competition once in awhile, but that was usually chalked up to bad luck, or bad chemistry, or maybe even indifference.
Things are different now, and it showed in the gold medal game against France on Friday night (Saturday, Tokyo time). The Americans couldn’t overwhelm the French with talent. They had to scratch and claw and fight. They had to play gritty defense and force turnovers. They had to make clutch shots. And they had to ride the best player on the court – Kevin Durant – who scored 29 points in an 87-82 victory.
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Of course, the U.S. still has an edge in athleticism, though it’s not as great as it used to be. The skill gap has also narrowed.
And you can forget about a size advantage. In this game, as in several matchups in these Olympics, that edge belonged to the French, who outrebounded the U.S. 41-34 and consistently created mismatches inside for 7-2 Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
If Gobert was a better free-throw shooter, this game might have turned out differently – the big man was 6-for-13 (46%) from the line, his teammates were 12-for-16 (75%) – but the strategy was nonetheless effective for France, keeping them in the game and making it hard for the U.S. to create momentum.
In the end, however, the U.S. had enough to pull it off.
They played excellent defense despite their size disadvantage. They harrassed shooters and forced bad shots, holding the French to 32.3% shooting from 3-point range. They pestered NBA regulars Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum into a combined 7-for-20 from the field and 3-for-13 from 3.
They swarmed the passing lanes, nabbing eight steals – Jrue Holiday had three – and creating a stunning 18 turnovers. And they swatted shots, compiling five blocks [three from Bam Adebayo], while France had none.
But most of all, they fed their superstar Durant. When the U.S. started the game cold, they fed Durant, and he responded with 12 of their first 18 points. While starting guards Devin Booker and Damian Lillard were shooting a combined 0-for-7 in the first half, Durant was dropping 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting.
And when Lillard and Holiday bricked three of four free-throw attempts in the final 30 seconds as France pulled within 85-82, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich drew up an in-bounds play for Durant, who calmly made both shots from the charity stripe to ice the game.
The world might be catching up, but there is still only one Durant, perhaps the world’s greatest player and certainly the greatest U.S. men’s basketball Olympian of all time. Only Carmelo Anthony can match the three gold medals that Durant now possesses, and not even Melo can match Durant’s scoring prowess in Olympic competitions.
Watching the reactions of the French after the game, you could tell that the defeat was a hard one to take. They thought they had the strategy and the talent to win. And rightly so. They had already rallied from a late deficit to beat the U.S. in their first game in Tokyo, and they thought they could do it again.
Watching the U.S. players celebrate after the game, you could tell they were aware of this, too. They knew the competition was good. They knew that the playing field has leveled and the talent gap narrowed. The fact that they couldn’t roll over hapless foes like the good ol’ days didn’t matter to them one bit.
“We just fought through everything … I’m glad we finished the job,” Durant said. “France is a good team. They don’t quit. They play hard every minute they’re on the floor. They’re a big team so it presented a nice challenge for us. But we wanted them again.”
The Americans might not have blown the doors off their foes like the NBA All-Star teams of the past might have done. But that’s OK. It’s not so much that the U.S. has taken a step back. It’s that the world has stepped up.
That makes for better basketball. And maybe that makes the gold medal victory over France more satisfying, not less so.
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