The best basketball player at the Rio Olympics served as the tournament’s bellwether: The less involved Kevin Durant was, the more vulnerable and unappealing his USA team became. That direct relationship was never more evident than USA’s opening-round squeaker against Serbia, when Durant took just four shots and turned into a bystander as his over-dribbling teammates courted disaster down the stretch.
But the championship game, fittingly a rematch against Serbia, saw an involved Durant, an efficient Durant, a merciless Durant—and that’s all the Americans needed to go home with Olympic gold for the third straight time.
USA defeated Serbia 96–66 on Sunday, sending longtime coach Mike Krzyzewski and four-time medalist Carmelo Anthony into international retirement on a high note. The 30-point margin of victory was the fifth largest in an Olympic championship game, marking the biggest blowout in a gold medal game since the original Dream Team smacked Croatia by 32 points in Barcelona.
Margin of Victory
USA over France 65–21
USA over USSR 89–55
USA over Croatia 117–85
USA over Spain 96–65
USA over Serbia 96–66
There was little American vulnerability in the final, and none after a brilliant stretch from Durant early in the second quarter. With the USA up eight, Durant drained a three, and then another. Before he could finish celebrating the second, he walked into an open-court steal, taking off into space for an easy, forceful finish. USA led by double digits the rest of the way, with Durant taking the lead from comfortable to comical with additional fireworks late in the second.
“It’s my second [gold medal] and the feeling stays the same,” Durant told reporters afterward. “It never gets old.”
By halftime, Durant had 24 points on 14 shots, nearly matching Serbia’s 29 as a team (on 35 shots). Remarkably, especially on a team with 10 All-Stars, he didn’t come out of the game until late in the third quarter, when the result was well in hand. Krzyzewski took no chances, and made it clear whom he trusted most.
The contrast in Durant’s two performances against Serbia represented the USA at its best and worst. His 18 second-quarter points topped the 12 he scored total in the first game. One of his three-pointers in the championship, cashed in after a whizzing series of passes around the perimeter, was the closest USA got all tournament to playing beautifully, and it was a far cry from the pounding and watching that fueled Serbia’s opening-round scare.
“[Durant] has gone through a lot of examination with the fact that he signed with the Warriors,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo told reporters. “He’s been under a little bit of pressure, and to see him bust out like he did here was wonderful. I think it’s really going to help his psyche going forward. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
In the end, the 2016 squad matched its two previous renditions with perfect Olympic runs, although its point differential lagged behind slightly despite three commanding performances in the knockout stage.
Wins by 20+ Points
Durant finished with a tournament-high 30 points and a tournament-high of +38 in 30 minutes on Sunday, the latest entry in an international career that has been marked by ultra-efficient scoring. For the second straight Olympics and his third straight major tournament, the four-time scoring champ led USA in scoring with eye-popping shooting numbers.
2010 Turkey Worlds
2012 London Olympics
2016 Rio Olympics
There were factors beyond Durant’s control that may keep this victory from standing out in the crowded annals of USA Basketball’s history. LeBron James and Stephen Curry stayed home, as did numerous other stars. Argentina was simply too old to be competitive. Spain put up a fight in the semis, but its roster was depleted and USA held firm control throughout. Serbia, an intriguing foil in the opening round, couldn’t summon its best performance in the final. Durant’s Warriors, as close as it gets to an NBA Dream Team, may well overshadow this run in just a few months. It’s enough to make one hope for an encore in Tokyo in 2020, when Durant will still be just 31.
Nevertheless, Durant reemerged after a mid-tournament swoon to do his part as USA’s headliner, and did his best work in the deciding game. With so many withdrawals, Durant entered Rio as the clear-cut top talent on paper. He will leave Brazil having proved exactly that, and with a gold medal around his neck.