SAITAMA, Japan — When Team USA started feeling that historic heat, the creeping grip of an unshakable loss, it went to the men with the rings.
Kevin Durant and Jrue Holiday, NBA champions, showed the kind of skill and poise that is absolutely vital in high-level basketball.
Durant and Holiday didn’t just break Australia’s spirit in the Olympic semifinals, they lifted the entire U.S. men’s basketball team up around them in a brilliant performance that led to a 97-78 victory. It means a berth in Saturday’s gold-medal game as the Americans will go for their fourth in a row.
“There were a lot of guys on this team that had straight faces and were ready to play when we were down 15 [points], strong faces is what Pop said,” said Durant, referencing a concept former USA coach Mike Krzyzewski fostered and current coach Gregg Popovich reinforced about playing through adversity.
“They came out and hit us with a nice haymaker, and we were able to get back up and get that lead back.”
Australia had prepared for this game for a long time and came out with a smart game plan, crisp execution and tight focus. The Australians showed Team USA some defensive looks they’d clearly saved, unveiling double teams and speed rotations that got the Americans on their heels.
This game meant everything for the Boomers, who were in their fifth Olympic semifinals and looking for their first win. They have seven players with NBA experience, led by Patty Mills, one of the greatest scorers in Olympics history, playing in a game that would have earned them respect amongst their peers and their countrymen for the rest of their lives.
With that as the backdrop, they played like it and methodically built that 15-point first-half lead. This was a calling card for Team USA, which tends to start games with choppy execution and poor shooting.
It was dangerous to dig a hole under these circumstances but, bottom line, the Americans had Durant, who had 23 points and wasn’t needed in the fourth quarter, and the Aussies didn’t.
With the offense sputtering and the 3-point shooting — the heart of Team USA’s offense that was absent as they missed their first 10 3s — totally failing, Durant put his head down and went to work. He grinded his way to seven first-half baskets. Holiday was his partner, putting together six first-half assists while being the lead defender on Mills.
The U.S. closed the first half on an 8-0 run as Australia started to waver as the lead was cut down to just three. This was a vital moment, especially because the Americans have shown an ability to be a great third-quarter team.
“When you are a great team and you’re playing a team who feels that it’s going to be tough to beat us, they’re going to come out and play their best brand of basketball,” Durant said. “They’re going to play perfect basketball, and I felt like that’s what they did in that first half, and once we went down three going into halftime, I felt like we had the game in hand.”
When the second half started, Durant and Holiday took the game into their own hands. Holiday, who had 11 points, made two baskets, and Durant made three out of the gate, two of them 3-pointers. It was a 12-0 run that made it 20-0 when attached to the end of the second quarter.
It was helped by strong defense led by Holiday and Durant challenging shots, and backed by big men Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green, whose versatility came through. After starting the game by shooting 13-for-26, the Australians appeared shaken by the Americans’ run and started missing shots as they then went 3-for-16.
Durant and Holiday’s confidence was infectious, particularly to Devin Booker. With the Aussies desperate to stop Durant, Holiday started looking for Booker. He nailed two 3-pointers and scored 10 of his 20 points in a third-quarter kick that turned the game into a rout.
“[Durant] has been in this situation before, and he’s leading us as such,” Booker said. “He’s been a great leader for us, and we feed off his energy.”
Mills, who had scored a combined 55 points in Australia’s two recent wins over the U.S., ended up with 15 but most of them after the game was already decided. Playing in his fourth Olympics, Mills made the decision this week to leave Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs after 10 seasons.
“I’m thrilled with the victory obviously, but when I looked him in the eyes, I felt badly,” Popovich said. “Because they want it at bad as any of us, that was a little bit sad. But that’s what we all do, we all try to win.”