Team USA still has not put together 40 solid minutes of basketball against a quality opponent. Maybe it will happen in the gold-medal game, or maybe not.
But the important thing is that the Americans will be in that game Sunday, on the final day of the Olympics, after defeating Australia 97-78 Thursday in the semifinal round.
Strange things happen in international basketball — things like the best American players in the world missing their first 10 three-point shots and falling into a huge hole. We have seen it time and again from this American team since training camp began in Las Vegas five weeks ago, and we have still not seen them dominate (with the exception of their games against overmatched opponents such as Iran and the Czech Republic).
Yet, here they are: One win away from accomplishing their goal, led by three-time Olympian Kevin Durant and facilitated most in this game by Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker among their cast of 10 first-time Olympians. Durant scored 23, Booker had 20 and Holiday finished with 11 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists.
This game flipped in the third quarter, when the Americans outscored the Boomers on a 32-10 rout to turn this into something resembling a runaway — even though that word does not quite fit because there were almost no fast-break opportunities.
This game was a grind and devoid of suspense throughout the fourth quarter after the Americans took control with a strong effort on both ends of the court. When their defense locked up an Australian team that came out confident but could not sustain it, this game turned drastically.
The Americans trailed by as much as 15 in the first half and made it a one-possession game by halftime.
“Once we got it down to three at halftime, I thought we had the game in hand,” Durant said.
That quote shows the confidence level this version of Team USA possesses. They have been slow starters in pretty much every game they have played, yet they keep coming back and persevering and making bad starts become irrelevant by the time all 40 minutes have been played.
“Guarding,” Booker said of what made the difference. “We talked about that in the locker room. Once we started doing that and playing defense, the shots were going to come.”
The Americans finished with 10 steals and a 44-29 rebounding advantage. (After they had consistently been beaten on the boards in earlier games, both in Tokyo and prior to the Olympics during training camp in Las Vegas, that was perhaps the most surprising stat of their Olympics to this point). And despite the 0-for-10 start from three-point range, they finished 9-for-28 with Booker going 3-for-5 from deep.
“It’s all or nothing,” Booker said of where the Olympic team stands.
And he is correct.
Either they finish the job Sunday and come home with gold medals around their necks, or they join an inglorious group of past iterations known by the destination cities of where they did not win: Moscow; Seoul; Athens.
A victory Sunday would make it four straight gold medals for Team USA, which would end the talk that the United States has lost its edge in being the best basketball-playing nation on the planet. Long gone are the days when squads like the Dream Team would leave opponents in awe. Pretty much every good international team is loaded with NBA players (Slovenia, other than Luka Doncic, is an exception), and what these games come down to is being able to withstand whatever happens early and play out the entire 40 minutes.