SAITAMA, Japan – There were 13 seconds left when Kevin Durant slipped to the basket without anyone.
He rose gently to the edge and dipped the ball in with both hands. When the buzzer sounded shortly afterwards, Draymond Green ran over to Durant, grabbed his hand, and patted his chest. It seemed like a gesture of celebration and recognition.
Having one of the best scorers in the universe on your basketball team has its perks.
That’s a lesson Green and his US teammates loved to learn on Tuesday afternoon – a luxury they’ve had to take advantage of in recent weeks – when Durant took control of their Olympic quarter-final match against Spain, scoring 29 points to keep the Americans to lead an initially nervous but ultimately comfortable 95-81 win.
“Kevin Durant was great,” said Green. “He was who we need. He showed why he is arguably the best player in the world. “
The victory sent the United States to the semi-finals of the men’s tournament, where they face the winner of a competition between Argentina and Australia.
Since the start of their preparations for the Games, American gamers have spoken openly that they are still learning to play as a group, not just a bunch of individual stars. They lost two exhibition games before leaving their homeland and then started their Olympic season with a loss to France.
The good thing, Green said, is that they keep improving. The only bad thing, he said, was that they didn’t have much time to find out.
“I think the potential of this team is endless,” said Green. “Unfortunately we have two games left so we have to make sure that we get better every time we step on the floor. I think we did. “
As much as they improve, as many question marks remain, they have the ultimate insurance plan in Durant, which again proved Tuesday that it can break the shackles of even the toughest-drilled defenses in the world.
Aug 3, 2021, 8:55 a.m. ET
The United States got off to a slow start, settling for outside shots and failing as Spain built a 10-point lead by the end of the second quarter. The Americans shot just 38 percent out of the field in the first half and only made 4 out of 17 attempts from 3-point range.
But Durant and his teammates became more aggressive before half-time. They worked the ball inwards, unsettling the Spanish defense and ending the quarter with a 14-4 run. That sent the teams tied to the locker room with 43-43.
“If we get it to the paint, two or three people will get together then we can get the 3,” said Durant. “If we just knock 3s out early if we don’t meet them, it’ll look bad.”
When Durant got hot on the third point out of the 3-point range, the Americans took control of the game and didn’t let go. Durant finished the game 10 for 17 from the field, including 4 for 7 from the 3-point range.
Afterward, Durant said that he was still familiarizing himself with his role. His remaining opponents may be watching carefully to see how comfortable he is.
“It’s always hard to get a foothold in this environment because you don’t want to step on your toes, you go in and out of the game, you don’t play that many minutes, you get so many shots,” said Durant. “But I love how we stuck with it all the time and the guys are starting to figure out what to do.”
The Spaniards, taller and more fit, took advantage of their size whenever they could. They won the rebound fight 42:32 and took several second chance opportunities around the basket.
Ricky Rubio was their main instigator on the offensive and led all scorers with 38 points.
When asked about the importance of Durant, US coach Gregg Popovich drew a comparison with Rubio’s role in the Spanish team.
“They’re both great players and they’re both hard to stop,” Popovich said before adding about Durant, “In these games every team has such people to depend on to get through and he definitely has . “.”
A gold medal run would mark an exclamation point for a long season for Durant, who missed the entire 2019-2020 NBA season after tearing his right Achilles tendon. He returned to the Nets that season, averaging 34.2 points during their 12-game postseason.
“Kevin is a rhythm player, and figuring out the rhythm and flow is important,” said Green. “We’ve found that out now and we’ve allowed him to do what he’s great at and he was great.”
The absence of some of the game’s biggest stars – LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden – from the US team (and the Olympic tournament) has sharpened the limelight on Durant. But he seems to take it calmly and to assert his identity more and more important, even if he didn’t seem to enjoy making it to the semi-finals on Tuesday.
“We should be here,” said Durant. “For us, it’s about getting gold.”