TOKYO — Kevin Durant is heating up just as the United States is headed to the knockout round in men’s basketball in these Olympics. His teammates aren’t too far behind him.
That bodes well for the Americans, and perhaps not so much for everyone else.
Durant poured in 23 points on just 8-of-11 shooting to lead the U.S. to a big second half and a blowout 119-84 victory over the Czech Republic. The total pushed Durant past Carmelo Anthony as the career scoring leader for USA men’s basketball. KD has 354 points to Anthony’s 336.
“Just thinking about all the players who played in this program, it’s pretty cool to be amongst names like that,” Durant said. “Carmelo is a guy I played on two Olympic teams with. I’ve seen his approach to these games and I tried to steal some of his techniques.
“I don’t know, man, it’s still pretty weird for me to do [expletive] like this. I play a team sport and I try my hardest to make it about the group. But it is pretty special to do something like that.”
The Brooklyn Nets star was averaging just 10 points a game at the Olympics and had hit just 8-of-20 shots, including just 3-of-10 from behind the arc. On Saturday however, he hit 4-of-7 from deep and essentially couldn’t be stopped. He added eight rebounds, six assists and a block.
Durant spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench, resting. The U.S. will need just that kind of performance over the course of the next week, when potential opponents capable of defeating them such as Australia, Spain, France and others await.
The U.S. ends group play with a 2-1 record and will advance to the quarterfinals, which begin Tuesday. The opponent and game time will be determined following the end of pool play Sunday.
The Czech Republic kept it close for most of the first half, but the Americans turned up the defensive intensity in the second half and began to look like a team that won’t be easy to beat here. They lost their opener to France after blowing numerous second-half leads. A destruction of the Republic of Iran, which included 120 points scored, was cathartic but hardly predictive of anything.
With the competition at least a little better, this was a result that coach Gregg Popovich should be able to build off.
“I think we are just locked in,” guard Jrue Holiday said.
Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics found his offensive touch as well, going for 27. Zach LaVine added 13 and Holiday had 11 in a balanced offensive night.
The U.S. men’s team has won gold in 15 of 18 Olympics. This team is a bit of a ragtag group, operating without its A-list choices due to COVID-19 restrictions and a delayed NBA season that left plenty of players seeking rest this summer.
Three players — Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Holiday — joined the team just 18 hours before the Olympic opener because they came directly from the NBA Finals.
The hope has been that the team will improve as it spends more time together. It at least appears to be getting there. The real work begins now though.
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