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After all those concerns following two exhibition losses, the worry about the first game in the Summer Olympics and the shaky start in the semifinals, the United States’ men’s basketball team is exactly where it expected to be all along: playing for a gold medal in Tokyo on Friday night.
It’s been everything but a smooth ride. There has been criticism and questions every step of the way. One more win, though, and none of it will matter. And the U.S. will get a shot to take down the one team — France — it couldn’t defeat in the Summer Games and win a fourth straight gold medal.
Neither team had a particularly easy semifinal. Undefeated in the Olympics, France needed a Nicolas Batum block in the final seconds to survive Luka Doncic and Slovenia. America trailed Australia by 15 points in the first half before waking up and taking apart the Aussies in the second half behind Kevin Durant’s 23 points en route to a 97-78 victory.
“I feel like a lot of teams are expecting us to fold early,” Durant told reporters after the win. “We know how to handle ourselves. We’ve got a lot of guys on this team that had straight faces and were ready to play when we were down 15. ‘Strong faces’ is what [coach Gregg Popovich] said. We kept our composure.”
Now they will meet again, after France started the Games with an 83-76 upset of the U.S. on July 25, snapping its 25-game Olympic win streak. Evan Fournier, the NBA veteran who just recently inked a four-year, $78 million deal with the Knicks, poured in a game-high 28 points that night. America struggled from the field, shooting just 36 percent. Durant managed just 10 points on 4 of 12 shooting, but is averaging 21.2 points on 58.1 percent shooting in the four games since.
With Durant finding his shooting touch, the United States hasn’t lost, manhandling Iran and the Czech Republic in group play and getting by Spain and Australia in the knockout round.
“[Durant has] been in these situations before and he’s leading us as such,” U.S. teammate Devin Booker said. “These games are real meaningful to him and our whole team. He’s been a great leader for us, and we feed off his energy. He didn’t have to be here [because of what] he’s done in the Olympic Games of the past.”
Durant isn’t the only difference. Booker of the Suns and Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton of the Bucks arrived in Tokyo the day before the France opener after playing in the NBA Finals, and they have emerged as key parts of the team. Holiday had 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the semifinal victory over Australia.
“We know Team USA is the favorite of this final, as they have been favorites for the last couple games,” France coach Vincent Collet said.
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