While Kevin Durant’s financial portfolio grew in leaps and bounds in the U.S. this past week, his basketball reputation did the same internationally as Team USA qualified for the knockout round in the men’s basketball tournament at the Tokyo Olympics.
By virtue of their 2-1 second-place finish in Group A, the Americans will join France, the Czech Republic, Australia, Italy, Germany, Slovenia and Spain in what will now be a single-elimination tournament played in the Saitama Super Arena. The U.S. is trying to win its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
The U.S. is slated to play Spain in the quarterfinals Tuesday at 12:40 a.m ET, and the gold medal game is Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Durant became the most prolific scorer in U.S. Olympic history Saturday, when he scored 23 points in a resounding 119-84 victory over the Czechs. He passed Carmelo Anthony’s 336 points, currently standing at 354 points as his team heads into the most crucial phase of the competition.
“There have been so many great players playing in this program I never really thought about it,” Durant said about the scoring record during a postgame interview. “But playing in three Olympics, that’s a lot of games. And I started a lot of these games, too.”
Durant had 10 points and fouled out of Team USA’s shocking opening game loss to France, in which the Americans squandered a seven-point lead with 3:51 to go. The French went on an uncontested 16-2 run, and the U.S. never hit another basket, missing its last nine shots. The loss snapped a 25-game U.S. Olympic winning streak dating back to 2004.
That game was a wakeup call for the U.S., a hastily put together team with five players on the roster who missed the two-week training camp in Las Vegas early last month prior to heading to Japan. In fact, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton all played in the NBA Finals, won by the Milwaukee Bucks in six games over the Phoenix Suns.
The trio boarded the long flight to Tokyo and arrived only hours prior to the France game, jumping straight from the plane to the basketball court.
In the week since, the U.S. players have had plenty of time to relax, practice and bond. They are back in a bubble with no fans in the stands and unaccompanied by friends, family and business partners, who are barred from attending the Games because of the spread of COVID-19 in Japan.
The result has been a return to international normalcy as the U.S. overpowered two far inferior opponents, Iran and the Czechs, by a combined total of 89 points.
Saturday, the Czechs held a slight lead after the first 10-minute quarter. But the U.S. came back to take a four-point edge at halftime and blew their opponent out by 31 points in the second half with Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics coming off the bench to score 27 points.
“We started off slow, but we got to what we wanted to do in the second quarter,” Durant said. “We sped it up on defense and got out in transition to score some easy points. Especially tonight, guys got to some spots and knocked some shots down.”
Durant is doing all this despite recovering from a serious ruptured right Achilles tendon suffered at Golden State two years ago, when his Warriors lost in the Finals to Toronto, ending their spectacular run of three titles and five consecutive trips to the championship round.
Durant subsequently declined a $31.5 million option to return to the Warriors and agreed to a four-year, $164 million deal to join the Brooklyn Nets. His $39 million contract this season is a fraction of the $580 million he’s earned so far just from salaries and endorsements.
“He’s the best basketball player in the world,” said Steve Kerr, Durant’s head coach with the Warriors and an assistant in Tokyo under Gregg Popovich.
He’s also one of the richest on a team full of multimillionaires. The full payroll for the 12 players on this Team USA is $241 million.
Durant sat out last year’s COVID-interrupted season, recovering from the Achilles injury. But when he returned for this 72-game season, he didn’t seem to miss a beat, averaging 26.9 points per game, a 10th of a point below his career average for 14 seasons.
Durant said at the time he first had to learn to walk all over again as he rehabbed.
“That is underestimated. People don’t realize that,” he said. “An Achilles ligament is one of the strongest ligaments in your body. But after the pop, you have to build that up, and that takes a while.”
He was a monster in Brooklyn’s seven-game, second-round loss to the eventual title-winning Bucks, averaging 42.7 minutes and 35.4 points each game. In the overtime Game 7 loss, he played all 53 minutes and scored 48 points.
Durant almost immediately committed to Team USA for the third time, even as his former Warriors teammate Steph Curry decided to stay home and rest up for the coming season, and LeBron James noted he had to recover from a season-long high right ankle sprain. Other big-name NBA star players decided not to play.
Now, Durant and his teammates face three consecutive single-elimination games. Lose one and they’re out. Win all three and they have their fourth gold in a row.
Durant said the equation for this week is simple. Everyone just needs to play at expected levels, meshing their abundant talents into a team unit.
“It’s basketball at the end of the day, and these guys are all world talents, all-stars, guys who’ve been the best players on their teams,” he said. “They’re high IQ players. I try to just lead by example by going out there and being a great teammate in practice, working as hard as I can and just leave it at that.”