Durant hauls USA men’s basketball past France to fourth straight Olympic gold

Photograph: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We used to talk of the dream team, but this was the tournament of a dream player.

Such is America’s dominance of Olympic basketball that the quadrennial intrigue is not so much whether the US will win gold as whether they could lose it. But for Kevin Durant, the doomsday scenario might have come to pass.

Related: Tokyo 2020 Olympics men’s basketball final: USA 87-82 France – as it happened

France beat the US in their opening game of the tournament but fell narrowly short in the rematch on the last day. The 32-year-old Brooklyn Nets forward, the nerve centre of the US team, was the chief reason. He scored more points and played more minutes than anyone on the court in a game that ended 87-82, the measliest winning margin in a men’s or women’s final since 1972.

That a tepid start did not spiral into cause for alarm owed much to Durant’s production and determination. He contributed 21 points as the US led 44-39 at half-time.

Team USA has four successive golds; this was Durant’s third in a row. Held to 10 points in the loss to France a fortnight earlier, he ended this contest with 29 on the day news broke that he plans to sign a four-year contract extension with the Nets worth $198m.

“We tried to make things tough for him, we tried to make him work as hard as we can, but he’s Kevin Durant. You know he’s going to hit some shots that only him in the world can hit,” said Rudy Gobert of France and the NBA’s Utah Jazz. “I think he’s the best scorer in basketball, he’s going to do what he does, especially on the biggest stage like an Olympic Games. We knew he was going to do his thing and he did.”

That thing included passing Carmelo Anthony during the tournament to become the US men’s all-time leading scorer at the Olympics; LeBron James is third. Durant top-scored for the US with 23 points in the semi-final win over Australia and delivered a team-leading 29 in the quarter-final with Spain. But Gregg Popovich stressed intangibles not statistics after the game.

“KD is not special because he’s so talented, it’s the way he works on his game that is more impressive, the relationships he builds with teammates, the respect he garners, the joy he has in playing,” the US head coach said. “It’s like osmosis, it filters into all the other players and allows you to build a camaraderie.”

Team USA

United States’ players celebrate after their win in the men’s basketball gold medal game against France on Saturday. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Durant was ably assisted by Jayson Tatum’s 19 points off the bench. If the overall performance was efficient more than enthralling, that represents an improvement in team cohesion after a tricky start to a tournament complicated by last-minute roster uncertainties from coronavirus protocols, injury and the near-overlap of the NBA finals.

The US lost warm-up games to Nigeria and Australia. Other nations – especially France, who defeated the US in the 2019 Fiba World Cup and should be a force at home in three years – are improving. “We went through a lot of adversity,” Durant said.

Ordinarily, “adversity” is not a word too often attached to a US team at an Olympic basketball tournament. Since men’s basketball was introduced to the Olympics in 1936, the only other nations to have won the title are the Soviet Union (1972 and 1988), Yugoslavia (1980) and Argentina (2004). But, as the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green observed after this game, “We’re in one of the craziest times in the world.”

Said USA guard Damian Lillard: “It is an underappreciated thing. I think because we play in the best league, people say all right throw Kevin Durant, throw Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, just throw a team together and beat everyone. It sounds good, but we are competing against high-level players.

“When they are as connected as [France] are, they have been playing together 10 to 12 years, they have their offence and know how to play. That makes it even more complicated for a team coming together that is new to dominate.”

After the loss to France the US players held a team meeting without Popovich to talk through their troubles. “We just worked our way up from there,” Durant said. “A lot of people back home doubted us … You hear the noise so much.”

The chatter was certainly audible to Popovich, who has coached the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA championships. “This is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt,” the 72-year-old said.

“The responsibility was awesome and I’ve felt it every day for several years now. I’m feeling pretty light now and looking forward to getting back in the hotel and having … something.”

He stewarded a line-up that looked imposing at times in Japan but not indomitable. France, who sought to profit from the 7ft 1in Gobert’s height advantage, rued their own mistakes as much as crediting their opponents’ excellence. “We knew they were going to be really aggressive on the ball,” Gobert said. “If we turned the ball over there was a bucket the other way. When you give those type of turnovers and also missed free throws, those kind of details, you shoot yourself in the foot.”

Outscored over the first three quarters, France were resilient as they strained to keep the score close. Though the American advantage expanded and contracted like accordion bellows, it was clear which team was controlling the rhythm of the game.

The US held a 14-point lead late in the third quarter but France did not fold and the advantage was merely three points with 10 seconds left in the fourth as Nando de Colo, of the Turkish side Fenerbahçe, made two free throws. But the challenge was killed off with a pair of nerveless free throws with eight seconds to go. Fittingly, Durant was the scorer, putting the full stop on a game in which he was also the exclamation point.