It would be preposterous to assert anyone other than Kevin Durant was most responsible for the United States men’s national team recovering from its rugged start in and around the Tokyo Olympics to claim the nation’s fourth consecutive gold medal in the sport. The team was built around his selfless decision to compete. He was the team’s leader in scoring, its leader in assists, its leader in leading.
The Americans’ 87-82 victory over France in Friday’s gold-medal game included 29 points from Durant and the clutch free throws with 8.8 seconds remaining that squeezed the last breath from a desperate comeback attempt by the French. Durant, though, had a role that was comfortable for him to embrace. He is a superstar who was, in this arena, asked to be a superstar.
It was the job of Damian Lillard, among others, to not lose the game for the Americans. And when it comes to the U.S. vs. the world in the sport of basketball, not losing is really what it’s about. Victory is expected, almost assumed. This country’s men have played 149 Olympic games since the sport was introduced in 1936. Just six of those ended in defeat, which is why the losses tend to endure and why the players involved must find ways to avoid adding another to that short list.
“It’s an underappreciated thing,” Lillard told reporters after he’d joined such players as Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kobe Bryant as gold medalists. “Because we play in the best league in the world, people just say, ‘All right, people throw Kevin Durant, throw Dame Lillard and Draymond [Green], just throw a team together and we should beat everybody.’ And it sounds good, but we’re competing against high-level players.
“And when they’re connected as they are, that makes it even tougher. They’ve been playing together 10 to 12 years. They come together. They’re familiar. They know the offense. They know how they play. And that makes it even more difficult for a team that’s coming together new to dominate those kinds of games.”
Reaching their customary place atop the podium meant embracing roles that for most everyone were far different than is typical with their NBA teams — and no one more so than Lillard. For the Trail Blazers, he plays with the ball in his hands nearly all of the time, shoots 20 times per game and warrants pretty much every one of those. But that sort of approach could not work with the U.S. And we know this because he tried it.
By the time the team had played five games and lost three — two exhibitions and the Olympic opener to France — Lillard had attempted 58 shots, only two fewer than Durant. With Lillard trying so hard to be Dame, the U.S. offense too often was lame.
Once the quarterfinals began, he no longer was that player. Coach Gregg Popovich had Durant initiate the offense more often, until the finals, when it made sense to have skilled big men Green and Bam Adebayo advance the ball because France center Rudy Gobert was the only opposing player who was not going to engage in full-court pressure.
Lillard attempted a combined 25 shots in the three challenging single-elimination games the Americans played. He played only 23 minutes against Spain, just 17 against the Aussies.
When he was needed for more against France, though, with Devin Booker in foul trouble and in a funk, with Khris Middleton playing poorly and Zach LaVine prepared to bring energy but not comfortable with his shot, Lillard delivered 11 points and three assists in 27 minutes. Only once did he attempt to turn this game into “Dame Time” with a heat-check 3-pointer before returning to the role Popovich had conceived for him.
Lillard did all this at the end of a run that included 97 games dating back to July 30, 2020. Some portion of those wearing a U.S. jersey were played with an abdominal injury, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, that will require additional testing when he returns home. Lillard insisted on continuing to play.
“We progressed very rapidly in a very short period of time, under some difficult circumstances, which I think made this win all the sweeter,” Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “We’re glad it’s over.”
This was not a perfect game for Lillard. By his standards, it wasn’t even good. He hit just two of his seven 3-point attempts. He worked his way into a heroic opportunity on a couple of occasions but reverted to Clark Kent, once diving on the court to gain a loose rebound but immediately passing to an opponent and later missing two free throws, with the U.S. ahead by seven and 23 seconds left, that would have rendered a comeback impossible.
Except when he wasn’t clutch, though, Lillard was extremely clutch. With France’s Nicolas Batum expending every bit of his energy to contain Durant in the fourth, Lillard was the only American player who consistently generated offense.
With the lead down to just two points following an unlikely 3-pointer from France’s Frank Ntilikina, Lillard found his way to a tough pull-up jumper with 5:28 left. With the lead back to seven points at the 4:40 mark, Jrue Holiday hit Lillard in the corner for a long jumper. With 3:24 left, Lillard found Jayson Tatum for an open 3-pointer that pushed the advantage back into double digits.
It was closer in the end than it should have been, but it also fit this team’s journey. Kevin Love indicated he was healthy enough to play, then withdrew because he apparently wasn’t. Bradley Beal wanted to play, but COVID protocols prevented him from making the trip. Booker, Middleton and Holiday played in the NBA Finals half a world away and completed their series just five days before the Olympic opener. No one got the privilege of taking along their families.
But they found a way to create enough chemistry to win knockout-round games against Spain, Australia and France, likely the strongest list of the opponents they’ve ever conquered on the way to a gold medal.
“I think it’s more joy than relief, but definitely some relief,” Lillard said. “I think it’s because of the expectations that get placed on Team USA. Obviously there’s going to be some relief because of it. Especially with us losing a few games, it was like, ‘All right, we’ve got to get it done. Let’s get to it.’
“Finally getting there and pulling the gold medal game out, it’s like you can almost kind of exhale.”