SAITAMA, Japan — Kevin Durant’s case as the greatest Olympic basketball player ever is growing by the game.
For the third straight Summer Olympics, Durant has been an offensive powerhouse as he has overwhelmed the challenges of the international game with his spectacular shooting skills. He was unstoppable in London, was unconscious in Rio and has been the lifeblood of a flawed Team USA in Tokyo.
Durant’s shooting rescued the Americans again Tuesday as they overcame a 10-point deficit to beat Spain 95-81 and advance to the semifinals of the Olympic men’s basketball tournament, in which they will play either Australia or Argentina on Thursday.
“We’ve got to finish it,” Durant said. “We’re supposed to be here. For us it’s about getting the gold.”
Durant scored 29 points — 13 of those coming in the game-changing third quarter — to help his team overcome yet another sluggish start. Durant already has passed Carmelo Anthony as the all-time leading scorer in men’s Olympic basketball and is working on becoming only the second American male to win three golds after Anthony.
“We’re in a good spot right now,” Durant said. “Guys are starting to understand their roles and just getting comfortable within the team. In this setting, it’s always hard to get your footing as an individual player. You don’t want to step on toes.”
It has become apparent that this version of Team USA has weaknesses that are glaring — particularly its lack of size and penchant to rely on the 3-point shot that makes it vulnerable to slumps in a 40-minute game. Then again, the Americans also have their strengths — and they, too, are glaring — which would be their quickness and ability to smother opponents when those 3s start to fall. After making just 4 of 17 3-pointers in the first half, they made 9 of 15 in the second, rounding back toward their average with Durant leading it.
“You have to be who you are,” Team USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “The 3-point shot is important in basketball in all levels these days, it’s not a secret.”
Durant’s abilities are the epitome of the strategy, as he made three triples in the third quarter while the Americans stuck with their improving ball movement that repeatedly was able to deliver their star open looks.
“He was who we need him to be,” said Draymond Green, who had nine points, five assists and three steals in the win. “He showed he’s already the greatest player in the world and we needed it.”
The Spanish have to be absolutely sick of Durant at this point after he dropped 30 on them in the gold-medal game in London in 2012, and then had 14 points and eight rebounds in their semifinal matchup in 2016.
And Ricky Rubio has to be personally tired of everything red, white and blue. This loss marked the fourth straight Olympics he had to swallow a defeat against Team USA, dating to the 2008 gold-medal game in Beijing.
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Rubio played like he knew this might be one of his last chances against the Americans, displaying relentless aggression right out of the gate. He attacked and probed for shots all game, even against the stout defense of Jrue Holiday, and repeatedly got free to finish in the lane.
It was a masterful performance. Rubio finished with 38 points on 13-of-20 shooting, the most points ever against Team USA in the Olympics or any other major event. It broke Dirk Nowitzki’s mark of 34 points for Germany against the U.S. in the 2002 world championships.
The Spanish pounded the ball inside, which is standard for opponents now, as they scored 17 hoops in the paint and outrebounded the Americans by 10. It led to an early cushion for Spain, but it never felt like it would last.
Team USA, led by more aggressive defense, finished the first half on a 14-4 run and then opened the second half 15-4 behind Durant to create separation. Jayson Tatum, who is developing into a weapon as a scorer off the bench, contributed 13 points and scored several key hoops in the fourth to keep the lead safe.
The win was a relief for Team USA after some players and coaches were up much of the previous night dealing with NBA free agency back home. Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs had more than $40 million in cap space and came to terms with several players during the day, the coach barely sleeping or eating. JaVale McGee, who didn’t play Tuesday, agreed to terms with the Phoenix Suns, and several other players saw their teams make major moves — like Zach LaVine’s Chicago Bulls trading for Lonzo Ball.
After the game, Spain center Marc Gasol put to rest speculation he might retire and said he would return to the Los Angeles Lakers next season, his last under contract. But he indicated he’d retire from international play. His brother, likely future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol, may have played his final game in the loss. Neither Gasol brother scored in the game.