The United States advanced to face France in Saturday’s gold medal game, where it will try to claim its fourth straight Olympic gold. Australia, which has longed for its first medal in a major international competition, will head to the bronze medal game.
To pull within one win of his third gold medal, Durant turned in his third straight spectacular performance. For all the talk about the international competition closing the gap on Team USA when it comes to talent, no one has had an answer for Durant, who has continued to state his case as the world’s best player.
Team USA trailed by 15 points in the second quarter, unable to effectively move the ball and repeatedly looking lost in its defensive coverages. U.S. Coach Gregg Popovich took a timeout with the game threatening to slip, and Durant immediately responded with an aggressive drive into a pull-up jumper. From there, he worked methodically to keep Team USA’s offense afloat through a cold shooting start, toying with Australian defenders as he found his spots for jumpers.
“I feel like a lot of teams are expecting us to fold early,” said Durant, who finished with a game-high 23 points to go with nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal. “We know how to handle ourselves. We’ve got a lot of guys on this team that had straight faces and were ready to play when we were down 15. ‘Strong faces’ is what [Popovich] said. We kept our composure.”
Popovich admitted later that he borrowed the “strong faces” mantra from his Team USA predecessor, Mike Krzyzewski.
“You don’t react to a teammate’s turnover, a referee’s call or the fact that you missed a shot,” Popovich explained. “Nobody cares. You don’t have that right. You owe your team, and you’re responsible to your team to move on to the next play. [Krzyzewski] called it ‘strong faces.’ As simplistic as it sounds, it’s true.”
While Team USA’s talent gets all the attention, its resolve has been crucial to its Olympic run. Following its opening loss to France, Team USA has won four straight games by an average of 31 points, and it has erased big first-half deficits against Spain and Australia, two teams with cores that possess far more shared experience.
“We just tell the truth,” Popovich said. “When we were down 15, I thought our defense was pretty poor. It carried over to the offensive end, where each of us was going to save the day. I give [the players] credit for understanding the game as well as they do and being able to accept the truth. You can be with some players and you can tell them something, and they don’t buy it. They can’t handle a certain kind of criticism. These guys want the truth and they react to it.”
As the Americans pulled away against the Australians with a 28-4 run that spanned the second and third quarters, Durant made key plays on both ends, including a block at the rim and an array of contested jumpers. His scoring success and focus eased Team USA’s tension on offense and spurred it to greater activity on defense.
“[Durant has] been in these situations before and he’s leading us as such,” Devin Booker said. “These games are real meaningful to him and our whole team. He’s been a great leader for us, and we feed off his energy. He didn’t have to be here [because of what] he’s done in the Olympic Games of the past.”
Booker, who hit Team USA’s first three-pointer late in the second quarter, finished with 20 points. The Phoenix Suns guard drained a backbreaking three-pointer in the third quarter to put away the Australians’ best rally attempt.
Australia got off to a spunky start in the first quarter with back-to-back three-pointers from Joe Ingles, who repeatedly expressed confidence in his country’s ability to upset the world’s top-ranked team. Following an exhibition win over Team USA last month, Ingles told reporters Australia “came in here expecting to win” — a flavor of public confidence never wielded against Dream Teams of the past.
But the Australians lost their offensive mojo in the semifinals, unable to keep pace with Team USA’s onslaught while going scoreless for almost four minutes to start the third quarter. Australia Coach Brian Goorjian credited Jrue Holiday, who wasn’t available for last month’s exhibition because he was still competing in the NBA playoffs, as a “huge piece” in Team USA’s relentless switching defense. Patty Mills, Australia’s captain and leading scorer, was held to 15 points on 5-for-14 shooting, and Australia was held to just 10 points in the decisive third quarter. After his hot start, Ingles finished with nine points in 29 minutes.
“[Holiday] makes that ball move around,” Goorjian said. “Where [Team USA] got us and where they got Spain is when they picked it up on the defensive end of the floor. That makes them the outright favorite [to win gold]. … I’ve been to three Olympics now, and they’re as good as any Team USA team that I’ve played against. They’re right there.”
Despite the maddening inconsistencies, Team USA has settled into a groove and looks far more relaxed than it did in the early stages of the Olympics. When the quarterfinals draw was set, Team USA appeared at some risk of an early exit. Instead, the Americans have guaranteed they will medal for the 19th time in their 19 Olympic appearances. To win gold, Team USA will need to exact revenge against Rudy Gobert and France.
“We know Team USA is the favorite of this final, as they have been favorites for the last couple Games,” French Coach Vincent Collet said Thursday. “I hope we play against them with the same fire and the same energy.”
In a sign that the Americans’ mood had lightened during a challenging summer, Popovich unleashed one of his signature sarcastic responses to a foreign reporter who dared to ask whether he had a preference for his gold medal game opponent.
“You really think I’m going to answer that question? How long have you been a reporter? You must be talking to some dumb coaches,” Popovich said, to rare laughter in the press room. “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole. You’ve got to be kidding.”
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