The United States men’s basketball team has long been a dominant force in the international basketball scene. Coming into the 2020 Olympics, Team USA had earned gold in 15 out of the 19 Olympic Games since basketball was added as a sport in 1936, and had not lost a game since 2004. It seemed natural, then, that Team USA would enter the games as the clear favorite. In addition to a bevy of All-Star National Basketball Association (NBA) players, the team possessed a legendary coaching staff with Head Coach Gregg Popovich from the San Antonio Spurs and Assistants Jay Wright, Villanova’s head coach, Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr and former Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Lloyd Pierce.
However, on-court talent and accomplished coaching do not always translate into immediate success. The U.S. had a frustrating and often troublesome journey that nevertheless ended with them beating France for gold.
It all started with the exhibition contests. The game against Nigeria was expected to be an effortless victory for the American team. Unfortunately, Team USA was in for a rude awakening in their first exhibition game. Nigeria came out firing and shot 47.6 percent from three, led by Gabe Vincent’s 21 points, defeating the Americans 90-87.
It was a concerning start, but since Team USA had had little time to play together and develop chemistry, the loss was at least excusable. Australia was a different story. In this second tune-up game, the Australian Boomers had an effective game plan. They used their team-oriented style of play to defeat the isolation style of the Americans — with great success. Through back cuts, three-point shooting and ball movement, Australia beat the Americans 91-83 and later went on to win bronze in the Olympics. The United States won its remaining exhibition games before the Olympics, but these exhibition losses were just the beginning of the team’s struggles.
In the first round of the group stage, Team USA played France. The French were a physically imposing team, much bigger than the Americans, and featured a slew of NBA players to match Team USA. The Americans were the more talented team, but France’s superior team chemistry posed a challenge. With excellent guard play of Evan Fournier, rebounding and shot blocking from Rudy Gorbert and timely plays from Nicolas Batum, France defeated Team USA 83-76, ending America’s 25-game Olympic winning streak. All three of these key French players are solid to All-Star level performers in the NBA, but the Americans have arguably the best player in the NBA in Kevin Durant, a top-ten player in Damian Lillard and further elite talent in stars such as Devin Booker, Zach Lavine, Jayson Tatum and Jrue Holiday, to name a few. Evidently, the United States, with all its talent, was being outperformed by a team of lower-tier players.
While doubt crept in for fans and analysts, the players and coaches never wavered hope. The U.S. dominated their next matchups with Iran and Czech Republic, but Durant, the de facto leader of Team USA, showcased his outstanding offensive play when it got to the knockout stage. It all started in the quarterfinals against Spain. Spain has been a powerhouse in the basketball world for the last 10 years or so, showcasing players like brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio and other great European professional players. At first, America started out again in trouble, down double digits and playing a slower-paced, half-court type of game.
Then Durant took over. He scored 29 points and shot 10 of 17 from the floor. This was his highest point total so far in these Olympics. As a result, America overcame a double-digit first-half deficit to defeat Spain 95-81. It didn’t stop there for Team USA, as they had another tough test against Australia. Australia had confidence going into this contest because they had beaten the Americans already in exhibition play. Patty Mills, Joe Ingles and Jock Landale were some of the top players for the Boomers as they headed into this matchup. Once again, the Australians came out of the gates strong, building up a double-digit lead on the Americans. Once again, Team USA demonstrated their impressive resolve as they played from behind. Durant and Devin Booker both took back control this time. Durant scored 23 while Booker had 20, and the Americans turned around another double-digit deficit, earning a 97-78 victory.
The U.S. had made its way to the championship game after facing doubt for their questionable exhibition and group stage results. Their final test was France, a chance to redeem themselves and show the world that the U.S. is still the best team in the world in basketball. France gave the Americans a devastating defeat the first time, and they were still a major challenge in the second go-around. The game was back and forth, with both teams demonstrating their impressive talent and coaching. In a close game like this, stars have to rise to the occasion and Durant did just that. Scoring 29 points and dominating the game down the stretch, Durant led the Americans to an 87-82 victory.
There are a few key points to take away from this result, the first being that Kevin Durant can lead a team to victory, even when it seems impossible. Averaging 27 points in the playoff rounds of the Olympics, Durant demonstrated why he is considered one of the best players in the world.
Secondly, it takes time for teams to find their groove when they first begin to play together. Despite the talent of the players, the team bond had not yet been solidified — and that’s a problem when you’re trying to win the Olympics. Like other countries, it takes some time to figure out what style works best and how the players and coaches can collaborate. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Team USA certified its status as the top basketball team in the world — and for an American fan, that’s a nice thing to see.