TOKYO — The United States men’s basketball team felt the pressure and heard the scrutiny from their critics about how this group of men was not good enough to win the gold medal.
Saturday morning in Tokyo, they proved all the doubters wrong.
Kevin Durant scored 29 points as he led Team USA to an 87-82 victory over France at Saitama Super Arena to bring home the gold medal, the fourth straight for the Americans.
Jayson Tatum added 19 points off the bench for Team USA, who used hardnosed defense in the third quarter to build a 14-point lead. France would make a game of it late but Durant put his team on his back, as he did all Olympics, to bring the gold home.
The victory may be one of the sweetest for the Americans, who faced challenges and scrutiny from the media. It all started when they suffered a shocking loss to Nigeria in an exhibition game in Las Vegas and then lost their Olympic opener to France.
Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Devin Booker all arrived at 1 A.M. on game day, jetlagged and exhausted. The loss to France led to critics questioning if USA Coach Gregg Popovich was the right man to lead the team to gold.
“This is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt, Popovich said. “The responsibility was awesome and I felt it every day for several years now. I’m feeling pretty light now. Looking forward to getting back to the hotel and having… something.”
Durant said all the critics and extreme circumstances made this win that much more meaningful.
“We had some unusual circumstances,” said Durant, who is tied with Carmelo Anthony for most gold medals in Olympic men’s basketball history. “We just fought through anything, 2 ½ weeks away from our families, basically in a bubble. So it’s definitely different so I’m glad we finished the job.”
Holiday and Middleton joined Team USA just hours before tip-off against France on July 25 became the fourth and fifth players to win the NBA Finals and Olympic gold in the same year.
“Getting in at one in the morning, me, Book and Khris, and then playing that night against France, losing that game and then being able to go through the rest of the tournament and then winning the gold medal game,” Holiday said. “I don’t know — I guess me thinking about it, and me telling that story, man, that’s a hell of a summer.”
Team USA has won gold in 15 of the 18 tournaments they have been in. Their only times not winning the gold medal came in 2004 in Athens, 1988 in Seoul, and 1972 in Munich.
“It’s great,” Green said. “It’s a challenge to do special things. I know it seems as if it’s come easy for so long. I played in 2016, it wasn’t easy then. It wasn’t easy this year, but nothing special, nothing is worth having that you don’t have to fight for. If it’s worth having, you got to fight for it. We fought. They fought. I think the better team came out the gold medalist.”