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Team USA secured the gold medal Saturday at the Tokyo Olympics with an 87-82 victory over France. After opening pool play with a loss to this same squad, USA mostly dominated the field, but it’s still difficult to imagine them winning this tournament without Kevin Durant.
And another dominant international performance, this time on the heels of a ridiculous NBA postseason, sends a couple messages to the world. For one, KD may well be the best men’s basketball player in Team USA history. Or, at the very least, the most prolific. And two, with apologies NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and another star in these Olympics, Luka Doncic, Durant may well be the best player on the planet right now.
Over six games, he averaged 20.3 points and shot 52.9 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from three and 90.5 percent from the line. With one fewer Olympic experience to his name, he passed Carmelo Anthony for the most total points by an American at the Olympics. And perhaps more important than any averages or statistical milestones, he looked like the biggest cheat code at the games.
In the gold medal game, it didn’t matter who France threw his way. Whether it was big-bodied Guerschon Yabusele, NBA wing Nicolas Batum or the three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, Durant was able to get to his spots and hit that high-release jumper. When the French, who were clearly more accustomed to the physical nature of the FIBA game, sent him to the line, Durant made them pay. Eight of his 29 points came from the stripe.
In the semifinals, Team USA appeared to be in even direr straits against Australia.
They fell behind by 15 points with just over five minutes left in the second quarter. Australia was moving the ball on offense, cutting through open lanes to the rim and on a string defensively. It had beaten America in each of the teams’ previous two meetings. But this time, KD was there to stop the bleeding.
He hit a settle-things-down two-pointer, impacted the game with his defense and rebounding and bought enough time for his teammates to catch up with them. Then, he and the Americans unleashed the whirlwind in a 32-10 third quarter. He finished that game with 23 points.
And with the exception of that one loss to France, there were moments like this throughout the Olympics. Durant is unguardable. And several times a game, he reminds his opponent of that sobering fact.
Luka’s raw numbers in this tournament (24.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists) are probably more impressive. Jokic is a better passer and rebounder. Giannis is the reigning champion who just put together a historically great Finals. LeBron James and Stephen Curry still have to be in this conversation too. Even James Harden‘s peaks deserve a mention. But when you watch Durant on the biggest stages, it’s hard to argue against his ceiling being the highest.
In the Brooklyn Nets’ seven-game series against Giannis’ Milwaukee Bucks, KD averaged 35.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks. Kyrie Irving was out, and Harden was hampered. And Durant still came within inches (literally) of ending the Bucks’ eventual title run in the second round.
If KD is half a step further back on that shot for the takeoff and it still goes in, how much easier is this argument to make?
Brooklyn would’ve likely gotten healthier as it faced the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. If Durant, Harden and Irving were all available by this hypothetical Finals, it’s hard to imagine them losing to Phoenix.
And if KD was emerging from this offseason with a third Finals MVP and the same tear through the Olympics, he’d probably be the consensus pick for a question that’s objectively unanswerable.
You don’t really need a hypothetical to make the case, though. With LeBron at this point in his career, there may not be another player who checks as many boxes (or fills them in as thoroughly) as Durant does. He can score at all three levels, whether as a driver, post player, pull-up shooter or catch-and-shoot threat. He can create for others, as evidenced by 5.6 assists per game over his last three seasons. When locked in, he can switch all over the perimeter and even protect the rim. Against France, he held up physically on a couple duck-ins under the rim by Gobert.
And his well-rounded dominance is now unique among American basketball players at the Olympics. When you think of the tradition that started with the Dream Team in 1992, some of the biggest names in the history of the sport come to mind. Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony have all had Olympic moments. All have won gold.
None of them have more gold medals than KD. None of them scored as many points in the Olympics as KD. And none of them averaged as many points in the Olympics as KD.
After losses in the tune-up games and pool play, much was made of the difference between NBA- and FIBA-style basketball, but Durant has proven again to have a game that transcends those differences.
There’s a purity that shines through, whether he’s torching the nets at Rucker Park, scoring on an NBA floor or leading his countrymen to gold in London, Rio or Tokyo.
With his NBA accomplishments alone, Durant is on track for an argument to be one of the 10 best basketball players ever. The most prolific Olympian in Team USA men’s basketball history is quite a cherry on top of that argument.