Elliott: Kevin Durant's Olympic spirit lifting U.S. men's basketball to the verge of gold

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-TOKYO,JAPAN August 5, 2021: USA's Kevin Durant, left, celebrates with Zach LaVine after defeating Australia in a semi-final game against Australia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times)
USA's Kevin Durant celebrates with teammate, Zach LaVine, after defeating Australia in the semi-final game. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

With two gold medals to match his two NBA championships with the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant had nothing to prove by playing in his third Olympic basketball tournament.

After sitting out the 2019-20 NBA season to recover from the torn Achilles’ tendon he had suffered during the 2019 Finals — and after playing only 35 games for the Brooklyn Nets in the reconfigured 2020-21 season — it would have been reasonable for Durant to skip the Tokyo Games and avoid subjecting his 32-year-old body to additional travel and stress. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry are among the superstars who stayed home. Given the COVID-delayed ending to the NBA season, their decisions didn’t stir much of an outcry.

But U.S. coach Gregg Popovich was prepared to put aside his pride — no easy task for the longtime San Antonio Spurs coach — and go to extremes to get Durant to commit to playing in Tokyo.

“If he said no, I would have begged, cried, done anything I could to change his mind," Popovich said during a pre-Olympic training camp in Las Vegas in July. "That’s pretty obvious. But what it says about him, number one, is that he loves the game. He really loves to play basketball. He loves to win. He loves the camaraderie. He wants to be part of this all the time, as we all know. And that’s his motivation.

“At the core, that’s what he loves to do. And luckily for all of us, that’s who he is. So it’s a testament to his character and just desire to be part of a team and have a challenge and seek the success.”

Durant is not only here, he’s fully present and ready to seize control of games when necessary. His eagerness is a key reason the U.S. men have found their footing in knockout play and are once again gold medal favorites.

“We all know who he is — he’s probably the best player in the world,” Damian Lillard said. “That height [6-foot-10], that athleticism, nobody can stop him.”

Durant didn’t panic when Australia jumped out to a 15-point lead in the second quarter of the semifinal game on Thursday at Saitama Super Arena. As the Americans tightened up defensively and were energized by Jrue Holiday’s sure shooting, Durant scored eight straight points to set a decisive tone early in the third quarter. He asserted himself at both ends of the court in the U.S.'s 97-78 comeback victory, which put the U.S. in the gold medal game on Saturday against France.

Kevin Durant cheers during Thursday's win over Australia in the Olympic men's basketball semifinals.
Kevin Durant cheers during Thursday's win over Australia in the Olympic men's basketball semifinals. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

The Olympic spirit isn’t a sappy slogan or cliché to Durant. It’s real.

“One hundred percent, and that’s not just on the court,” said Devin Booker, whose 20-point performance was second only to Durant’s 23 points. “We get that same spirit and that vibe and that energy from him off the court. He's been in the situation before, and he's leading us as such.

“I think these games are real meaningful to him and our whole team. So, he has been a great leader for us. We feed off what he does, and we feed off his energy. ... He didn't have to be here. He's done what he's done in the Olympic Games in the past, but for him to solidify himself and come here and be a leader, we feed off that energy.”

U.S. forward Kevin Durant drives against Australia's Jock Landale during Thursday's game.
U.S. forward Kevin Durant drives against Australia's Jock Landale during Thursday's game. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Durant, who became the career leader in U.S. men’s Olympic scoring during preliminary-round play, said the key to rallying against Australia was the team’s patience and ability to adjust to circumstances as they unfolded. Every player has been down 15 points or more in a game at some level, he said. But few of them had Durant to lead the charge back, as he did on Thursday.

“We know teams are going to come out fast and hit us with a nice punch," Durant said. "We know that teams want to get us down early and see how we respond. A lot of these guys got continuity for years and years, so they know how to play with each other.

“I feel like a lot of teams are expecting us to fold early. So we stuck with it, stuck with our principles, made a couple scheme switches on defense, and we were able to get some momentum going to the half. Guys came out with that intensity, man; we made shots as well. So, I feel like everything aligned for us in that second half, and that's who we are.”

The rest of the world has made inroads against American basketball supremacy, but the U.S. still has the most talent. And no one else here has Durant, who has scored 30 points in each of his two previous gold medal game appearances. At London in 2012 he also had nine rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block in a 107-100 victory over Spain. At Rio in 2016 he scored 30 in a 96-66 romp over Serbia and had five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block.

It’s noteworthy that when he was asked what he’s planning for his third straight gold medal game, he didn’t mention surpassing his previous scoring sprees.

“I'm looking forward to going out there and executing the game plan on defense,” he said. “Offensively, I'm not worried about that. But just executing the game plan defensively as a team, and we'll see what happens.”

Good things have happened in his two previous Olympic gold medal finals. There’s no reason to expect that to change in Tokyo. “It is a different experience, different teammates,” he said, “but the journey has been fun so far, and we are looking forward to this opportunity.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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