U.S. Men Claim Fourth Straight Olympic Gold Medal With Tight 87-82 Win Over France
Three players in the NBA Finals. Two more who had to leave the team during training camp. Two exhibition defeats. One Olympic loss. Countless doubters.
Four weeks after the U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team partially came together for the first time as a team, all that adversity did was make what transpired Saturday at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 all the more special.
With Kevin Durant scoring 29 points, including two free throws with 8.8 seconds left to seal the win, the U.S. (5-1) won its fourth consecutive gold medal, fending off France (5-1) 87-82 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. The Americans now have 16 golds from the 19 Olympics in which they have participated.
Durant has played a major role in each of the last three golds, and he’s now tied with Carmelo Anthony for the most gold medals in Olympic men’s basketball history. The Brooklyn Nets’ superstar scored 30 points in each of the prior two gold medal games.
“I hate to compare stuff because you know everything is its own moment,” Durant said, “but this is one of those special journeys that it’s just hard to describe, because each and every one of us put in that work every single day, from the coaches, to the trainers, to the players. We all came in with that goal of, ‘Let’s finish this thing off. Let’s build a family. Let’s build this team. Let’s grow this team every day.’ And when you are part of a team that's evolving by the second, it's just amazing to see.”
For U.S. coach Gregg Popovich, one of only five coaches with five NBA championships, the Olympic gold medal fills one of the few voids on his long resume. As a player for the U.S. Air Force Academy, he did not make the 1972 U.S. Olympic team that controversially lost to the Soviet Union in the gold-medal game.
“You know what sayonara means? That's how I’m feeling right now,” Popovich joked before turning serious. “I agree with these guys. Every championship is special, and the group you’re with is special. But I can be honest and say this is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt, because you’re playing for so many people that are watching and for your country and other countries involved. The responsibility was awesome, and I felt it every day for several years now. I’m feeling pretty light now and looking forward to getting back to the hotel and having something.”
Popovich likely will celebrate back at the team hotel with Jerry Colangelo, whose run as managing director of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team program ended with Saturday's victory. He took the position in 2005 after the Americans lost three times and earned bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Colangelo was the architect behind these four consecutive Olympic golds and two FIBA World Cup titles.
Milwaukee Bucks teammates Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, who joined the Olympic team in the early-morning hours before the U.S. played France in pool play on July 25, became the fourth and fifth players to win the NBA Finals and an Olympic gold in the same year (joining Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kyrie Irving). Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns also played in the NBA Finals shortly before flying to Tokyo.
“Getting in at one in the morning, me, Book and Khris, and then playing that night against France, losing that game and then being able to go through the rest of the tournament and then winning the gold medal game,” Holiday said of his whirlwind summer, “I don't know — I guess me thinking about it, and me telling that story, man, that’s a hell of a summer.”
Jayson Tatum had 19 points and seven rebounds, while Holiday added 11 points and five rebounds and Damian Lillard had 11 points for the U.S. Rudy Gobert had 16 points and eight rebounds and Evan Fournier also had 16 points for France, which won its third silver medal in 10 Olympic appearances. The French also won silver in 1948 and 2000.
The 32-year-old Durant became the career U.S. Olympic scoring leader and the first American to score at least 100 points in three separate Olympic Games.
“Kevin Durant is exactly who we thought he was — one of the greatest players who ever played this game,” U.S. forward Draymond Green said of his former Golden State Warriors teammate. “One of the most special guys you've ever seen lace their shoes up and take a basketball court.”
Added an emotional Colangelo: “He’s a very special guy. He loves the game, he loves USA Basketball, and he’s just got that kind of character.”
As if the gold medal wasn’t enough motivation, the Americans also wanted to show their loss in the pool-play opener to France was due more to coming together swiftly after a delayed NBA season than a true representation of their talent. In that 83-76 loss on July 25, the U.S. lost a late seven-point lead and watched France close the game on a 16-2 run to snap the Americans’ 25-game Olympic winning streak.
“I remember we had a team meeting after the first game against France, Pop wasn’t there,” Durant said of the game in which he scored only 10 points and was in foul trouble. “You know when you have a team meeting, you're kind of at the bottom. So, we just worked our way up from there. Everybody just committed to doing what’s best for the group, no matter what. It was just amazing to see that clock run down to zero and us celebrate like that and then celebrate in the locker room. It was just incredible, man.”
Durant’s leadership is what sets him apart, Popovich said.
“KD is not special because he’s so talented,” he 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. It’s like osmosis, it goes into all the other players and allows you to develop a camaraderie and an enjoyment to be together. That sort of love of the game and love of people is what makes him more special than as a player.”
There were the usual ups and downs in the gold medal game. The U.S. had another slow start, but quickly righted itself with a 16-6 run to close the first quarter up 22-18. Unlike the last two contests, the Americans did not fall into a double-digit hole, instead going up by as many as 13 points before settling for a 44-39 halftime advantage. The U.S. led 71-57 in the third quarter, before France’s Nicolas Batum hit a 3-pointer followed by another at the buzzer by teammate Thomas Heurtel that trimmed the margin to 71-63.
It set up a fourth quarter that was eerily reminiscent of the previous matchup. This time, however, the U.S. was a more cohesive unit and didn’t go cold down the stretch, even when France pulled within 85-82 on two Nando de Colo free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining.
Durant made his two free throws with 8.8 seconds left, and then Batum air balled a 3-pointer that set off a gold medal celebration.
JaVale McGee, named to the U.S. roster when Bradley Beal and Kevin Love had to withdraw, joins a unique group. His mother, Pamela McGee, won gold with the U.S. women’s basketball team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. They became the first American mother-son duo to win gold in any sport and the second in Olympic history. The other was Valentina Rastvorova (team foil fencing, 1960) and son Yevgeny Grishin (men’s water polo, 1980).
Delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic and facing adversity throughout this journey, the Americans relish this gold medal as much as any NBA championship.
“It’s great,” Green said. “It’s a challenge to do special things. I know it seems as if it’s come easy for so long. I played in 2016, it wasn't easy then. It wasn't easy this year, but nothing special, nothing is worth having that you don't have to fight for. If it’s worth having, you got to fight for it. We fought. They fought. I think the better team came out the gold medalist.”
Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.