But there was, in these pandemic Olympics marked by mostly empty stadiums, strict coronavirus protocols and inconvenient tip-off times back in the United States, a fourth straight gold medal for Team USA, which held off France, 87-82, in the final at Saitama Super Arena on Saturday. France settled for silver, as it did in 1948 and 2000. Australia beat Slovenia, 107-93, to win bronze, its first ever medal in a major international competition.
This was a controlled, collective, workmanlike triumph for the Americans, who gathered last month as a disorganized group, dropped three games in 15 days and then evolved into worthy champions who displayed impressive resolve and quietly handled their business against more experienced international opponents.
“This is one of those special journeys,” said forward Kevin Durant, who capped a sensational Olympics with a game-high 29 points on 9-for-18 shooting in the final. “You finish the job, you get the gold medal, you get the trophy. But when you go through that journey, it’s incredible to go through something so special. I’m bonded with these guys for life. It’s family for life. I’m grateful that we all committed to this early, we stuck with it, and we finished it off.”
Team USA’s challenges began well before it arrived in Tokyo. After being holding an abbreviated four-day training camp in Las Vegas because of the delayed NBA season, Team USA lost its first two exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia. Unintimidated by the Americans, Joe Ingles said the Australians “came in here expecting to win the game, and that’s what we did.”
The team didn’t get its shot at a rematch that week because a coronavirus scare canceled its second exhibition against Australia and led to Bradley Beal’s withdrawal. That same week, Kevin Love left the squad, citing an injury, and Zach LaVine was unable to travel to Japan on the team plane because he was in close-contact quarantine.
With a long list of superstars such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis remaining stateside, Team USA had to scramble to fill its roster by adding Keldon Johnson and JaVale McGee. To make matters worse, three key members of the final 12-man roster — Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton — arrived less than 24 hours before Team USA’s Olympic opener because they had competed in the NBA Finals. Despite those extenuating circumstances, the team shouldered gold-or-bust expectations given that its all-star-laden roster outshined all competitors on paper.
Team USA played poorly in its Tokyo opener, struggling to adjust to FIBA officiating and to execute down the stretch in a record-blemishing loss to France, the program’s first defeat in the Olympics since 2004. Following that game, France guard Evan Fournier said the American players were “better individually, but they can be beaten as a team.”
Durant, Team USA’s captain, revealed Saturday that the Americans had called a players-only meeting after that 83-76 loss to refocus. “I’ve never lost with Team USA before,” he said. “Taking a loss was tough. When you have a team meeting, you’re at the bottom. We worked our way up from there. A lot of people back home doubted us. When you hear the noise so much, we came together and finished it off with a perfect ending.”
That outside clamoring contrasted with the eerie quiet of day-to-day life in Japan, where Team USA’s run to gold took place on an island, literally and figuratively. While the American stars received selfie requests from international athletes when they participated in the Opening Ceremonies, they lived in a hotel away from the Olympic Village, dealt with quarantine protocols that prevented their friends and families from accompanying them and donned mandatory masks with parts of Japan in a state of emergency and Tokyo’s coronavirus case counts reaching record highs.
Their games took place more than an hour away from downtown Tokyo in Saitama Super Arena, a cavernous venue that seats more than 30,000 people. Fans were prohibited by the organizers, though, so there were only a few hundred onlookers at most of their games.
The crowd size swelled to roughly 1,000 people for the final, with credential-holding spectators from Cyprus, Djibouti, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Thailand and many other countries joining flocks of Games workers to take in the show. Still, McGee took the court for warm-ups and mock-waved to the arena’s upper decks, which were entirely empty. The American victory was met with only scattered applause from the stands, not a true ovation.
It was clear, by the end, that U.S. Coach Gregg Popovich, Durant and the rest of the group adopted a bunker mentality in response to the early criticism and hand-wringing about their medal chances. When Draymond Green noted that many American media members were “crushing us” after the loss to France, Popovich piped up to add: “A lot of those people are right here in this room.”
Yet this was a case where both the doubters and the eventual victors had valid points. Team USA looked vulnerable in four of its six Olympic contests, launching comebacks from double-digit deficits in multiple games and allowing France to hang around until the final moments of the final.
The 32-year-old Durant, fully recovered from an Achilles’ injury that cost him the 2019-20 NBA season, emerged as the driving force behind knockout-stage victories over Spain, Australia and France. When Team USA’s flow lagged or it found itself trailing early in games, Durant repeatedly stepped forward with timely shots and high-energy defense. Indeed, the U.S.'s golden streak would have ended if not for the Brooklyn Nets forward, who scored 29 points against Spain and 23 points against Australia before his scintillating finale.
“K.D. is not special because he’s so talented,” Popovich said. “The way he works on his game is more impressive. The relationships he builds with teammates. The respect he garners. The joy he has in playing is like osmosis. It goes into the other players.”
In the final, Durant left France flummoxed with fall-away jumpers and hard drives to the hoop. As his team endured another slow shooting start and missed its first eight three-point attempts, Durant conjured points from midrange, the free throw line and even a pretty back cut. France narrowed Team USA’s lead to two points shortly after halftime, but Durant hit a pull-up jumper and a three-pointer to reestablish control.
“We tried to make him work as hard as we can, but he’s Kevin Durant," France center Rudy Gobert said. “He’s going to hit shots that only him, in the world, can hit. I think he’s the best scorer in basketball. He’s going to do what he does.”
After the buzzer sounded, Durant draped an American flag over his shoulders and paraded around the court, doling out high-fives to his teammates. He joined Carmelo Anthony as the only American male players to win three Olympic gold medals, after he passed Anthony as Team USA’s all-time leading scorer at the Olympics during group play in Tokyo. Durant left open the possibility of chasing a fourth gold at the 2024 Paris Games, coyly saying, “We’ll see.”
The Americans ultimately claimed gold because Durant got just enough scoring help from his supporting cast and because he was backed by a hard-working, disruptive team defense that made life miserable for its opponents.
In Team USA’s first win in Tokyo against Iran, Damian Lillard came out firing from deep to help the Americans reclaim their swagger. Against Spain in the quarterfinals, five Americans finished in double figures. Against Australia in the semifinals, Booker and Holiday came through with key performances. In the final, Jayson Tatum continued his strong tournament with 19 points off the bench, including a big three-pointer in the fourth quarter.
France played with pride and grit in the gold medal game, leaning heavily on the 7-foot-1 Gobert, who exploited Team USA’s lack of size with 16 points and eight rebounds. But the French were undone by 18 turnovers, many forced by Team USA’s fierce switching defense, which tended to ramp up its intensity level as its opponents wore down in the second half.
“It’s one thing to know it [is coming],” France Coach Vincent Collet said of Team USA’s pressure. “And it’s another thing to handle it.”
Team USA had several reasons to savor its victory in Tokyo. First, it represented revenge for a stunning defeat against France in the 2019 FIBA World Cup and the Tokyo opener. The win also came in the same arena where Team USA lost to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship.
What’s more, Team USA’s gold marked Popovich’s first as head coach, atoning for a humiliating seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Popovich, who has coached five NBA championship teams, said he felt “totally frozen” and like he was living an “out-of-body experience” as Team USA closed in on gold in Tokyo.
USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo, who backed Popovich throughout those struggles, said that “[getting] the monkey off the back meant a tremendous amount” to the San Antonio Spurs legend. The 72-year-old coach and wine connoisseur celebrated by hugging his coaching staff and plotting a postgame drink.
“We’re glad it’s over,” Popovich said. “This is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt. The responsibility was awesome, and I felt it every day for several years now. I’m feeling pretty light now. I’m looking forward to getting back to the hotel and having something.”
Colangelo, who is handing USA Basketball’s reins to Grant Hill, held back tears during an interview in the mixed zone. His reign, which began in 2005, produced Olympic gold in Beijing, London, Rio de Janeiro and now Tokyo.
“The last one is always the best one,” Colangelo said. “That’s not taking away from any of the others. This one means a lot when you’re walking away. To finish strong. That’s what everyone dreams about. ... I’m going to take a blow here. I want a glass of champagne.”
Read below for highlights from the game.