SAITAMA, Japan — The best thing Team USA had going for it this summer was Kevin Durant committing to play at the Tokyo Olympics. On Saturday, he reminded everyone why.
On a night when he became the all-time leading American scorer in the Olympics, Durant added another tremendous performance to his Team USA résumé in a 119-84 victory over the Czech Republic.
The win put the team into the quarterfinals Tuesday. After their disappointing opening loss to France, getting back-to-back blowouts put them in a favorable position for Sunday’s draw for their next opponent. The Americans will have the No. 4 seed and are likely to play either Italy or the loser of Sunday’s game between Spain and Luka Doncic-led Slovenia.
Durant finished with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, which of course was important for the cause, but his playmaking and defense were just as helpful, as he put up eight rebounds and six assists. In the third quarter, he was masterful, scoring 10 points with four of his assists as it went from a tight game to a comfortable blowout.
“Looked easy, didn’t it? Looked easy,” Jrue Holiday said of his new teammate’s showing. “It’s fun to watch, fun to be a part of.”
Durant defended the Czech big men, blocked 3-point attempts on the perimeter, battled inside for rebounds to start fast breaks and acted for stretches as a point forward. Add a handful of smooth jumpers and it was everything the team could’ve asked for from its captain.
“I’ve had a lot asked of me every team I’ve been on since I was 8 years old. It’s no different here,” Durant said. “But I feel I have to be available to do every single thing out on the court. … I’ve worked to be at that point, and it’s fun.”
He’d had a pedestrian start in Tokyo, scoring just 20 points total in the first two games and shooting just 40%. Even in the run-up games in Vegas, Durant wasn’t moving at full speed as he admitted everything seemed like practice, and he shot just 43%. Then he fouled out of the opening loss to France, a key factor in the Americans’ offensive struggles.
With Doncic, who scored 48 points in his first Olympic game, off to an impressive start and Australia’s Patty Mills putting up great performances, Durant had faded into the background in the tournament’s first week.
All that lethargy was gone Saturday as he looked for his shot early. The Czechs had gotten off to a strong start, making eight of their first 11 shots and building a 10-point lead. But Durant led a charge to overtake them, his 3-pointer in the second quarter giving the U.S. the lead for good.
It was a relevant basket, not just because it put the team in front but also because it pushed Durant (354 points) past Carmelo Anthony (336) for the all-time scoring lead. Durant’s international career is impeccable, including the 2010 World Cup in Turkey, where he established himself as a centerpiece of the national team for the next decade.
It was also a slump-breaker evening for Jayson Tatum, who had his best game of the summer with 27 points and five 3-pointers. Tatum, who was bothered by a minor knee injury in Vegas, had lost his starting spot. Coach Gregg Popovich had positioned him to be an impact scorer off the bench, but he was shooting just 40% in the first two games.
“It felt good to just see some shots go in,” Tatum said. “We’re playing better each and every game, and that’s what we expected, to be better than we were last game throughout this tournament.”
Holiday, who was again terrific defensively as he pressured the ball relentlessly and picked off three steals, had 11 points.
The Czechs were led by Blake Schilb, who played at Loyola Chicago, with 17 points.
In other action, Mills scored 24 points, Jock Landale added 18 and Australia pulled away for an 89-76 victory over Germany and an undefeated finish to group play. Nick Kay helped the Australians finally break free in a close game and finished with 16 points.
The Australians went 3-0 to win Group B, a balanced pool where they, Italy and Germany all played competitive games against each other.
Italy is headed back to the Olympic quarterfinals, ousting Nigeria to clinch that spot. Nicolo Melli scored 15 points, Nico Mannion had 14 and Italy used a 14-0 run in the fourth quarter to win 80-71 in the Group B men’s basketball finale for both teams.
Chimezie Metu scored 22 points and Jordan Nwora added 20 for Nigeria. The Nigerians opened the summer with exhibition wins over the U.S. and Argentina in Las Vegas but went no further in their first Olympic appearance under coach Mike Brown.