There have been two versions of the U.S. men's basketball team during the Tokyo Olympics. Both showed up during a tale of two halves on Thursday.
There was the first-half version, the struggling stars that trailed by 15 points and seemed destined to fight for bronze. And there was the second-half version, the dominant force that turned the game around and seemed destined to steamroll any opponent in its path for a fourth straight gold medal.
Team USA is now one victory from doing just that after defeating Australia 97-78.
“We know these teams are going to hit us with their best puncher’s start,” Kevin Durant said during his postgame interview. “I think they want to get us down early in hopes that we panic, and we didn’t. Last game and this game, I think going into halftime we made plays, we got stops. Coach [Gregg Popovich] put in a good defensive scheme at the end of the second quarter and we was able to get some momentum. We came out in the third quarter with amazing energy and fight and we were able to come in and get a good lead.”
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A 28-4 U.S. run that started late in the second quarter and carried into the third turned what had been a 15-point deficit into a comfortable lead. The United States advanced to the gold medal game on Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET against the winner of France and Slovenia.
Durant led the way with 23 points and nine rebounds, placing him one win away from tying Carmelo Anthony's Olympic record of three gold medals in basketball. Devin Booker added 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
The U.S. opened the second half on a 12-0 run that was capped by a Kevin Durant 3 for a 54-45 lead with 6:47 remaining.
Australia was held without a point for the first four minutes of the quarter as the U.S. run, which extended from the first half when Australia led by 15, reached 28-4. Team USA's lead was cut to six before Booker hit a 3 and then followed with a runner plus the foul for a three-point play that increased the U.S. advantage to 65-53.
The U.S. closed the third on a 9-0 run to outscore Australia 32-10 in the quarter.
“I think we started guarding,” Booker said. “It’s a tale of two halves for us. We picked it up at the end of the second quarter and once we started playing some defense, we get out in transition and play some good basketball.”
It was Australia that played good basketball in the first half, connecting on 7 of 15 attempts from deep. The Aussies went up by 15 on a bucket by Jock Landale that made 41-26 with 5:23 left in first half. The U.S. then activated Dream Team mode, closing the half on a 16-4 run.
“When you’re 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, they’re going to play perfect basketball and I felt like that’s what they did in that first half," Durant said. "And once we were down three going into halftime I felt like we had the game in hand. So, we can score so fast, we didn’t make shots in that first half and we were able to knock some down.”
The U.S., after going 2-2 in exhibitions, lost its opener to France and then followed with two lopsided victories to finish pool play at 2-1. The team overcame a slow start to defeat Spain in the quarterfinals, and with the comeback win over Australia, will move on to face either a France team seeking its first gold medal or a Slovenian team led by Luka Doncic.
Team USA will need the best version of itself for either matchup in order to extend its gold medal dynasty.
“We’re a team that plays together, we're a team that flies around on the defensive side of the ball and communicates, and we're a team that can’t be stopped one on one if we drive it to the paint,” Durant said. “If we keep those principles in line, we'll be straight. We're looking forward to seeing who we play.”