When Team USA’s men’s basketball squad lost against France to officially begin Olympic play on July 25, the doubts were significantly heightened.
We had already dealt with the alarmist reactions detailing the alleged downfall of American basketball after the men’s team lost to both Nigeria and Australia in pre-Olympic scrimmages. Nigeria, in particular, isn’t even a top-20 program in the world, making for a massive upset, even if it technically didn’t count. And Australia’s Joe Ingles had no fear of Team USA, even saying that he expected his Australian squad to win, showing no indication of being overwhelmed by a flawed yet still World-Class roster.
When France won, it actually mattered, but then Team USA seemed to hit its stride. The Americans shook off their early defeat and obliterated World No. 23 Iran 120-66. And then, they blew out No. 16 Czech Republic 119-84. France beat all three, so they finished first in the group, giving Team USA a more difficult route to the gold medal game, which they navigated as many expect them to when they’re truly right. They took down World No. 3 Spain 95-81 in the quarterfinals. Then they proved that despite the criticisms launched at them; no one could piece together a game-changing 32-10 run like they could, which they did en route to a 97-78 win over World No. 2 Australia in the semis.
Through COVID sidelining Bradley Beal, through injuries eliminating Kevin Love, through Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday flying straight from the NBA Finals’ immediate aftermath to Tokyo, Japan, through the eyebrow-raising additions of JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson, through three embarrassing losses, and through the pandemic, we’re still currently in, Team USA navigated all that, on top of criticism, to reach yet another gold medal game. And, dammit, they won it again.
Now, sinking into an early 10-4 deficit and starting 0-for-8 from three wasn’t ideal. Neither was allowing a 13-5 run in the last four minutes of the second quarter, which shrunk their halftime lead to 44-39. And France fought like hell, keeping Team USA within range, making a run seemingly every time the Americans were pulling away, and maintaining a single-digit deficit for much of the second half. But still, Team USA did just enough to evade their French foes, winning 87-82.
In the victory, Team USA was led by Kevin Durant. Who else? He had a streak of back-to-back 30-point showings in gold medal games, adding to his all-time Team USA scoring record with a game-high 29 points tonight. He shot 9-for-18 from the floor, hit 3-for-9 on threes, and hit 8-for-9 from the free-throw line.
This was the 20th time men’s basketball has been showcased in the Olympics, and it’s Team USA’s 16th gold medal. The other four were won by Argentina, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union (twice). Team USA’s men now have four straight golds going back to the 2008 Redeem Team and have won 7-of-8 since allowing NBA players to participate in the games, beginning with the Dream Team of 1992. Now, they’ll get to watch as their women counterparts look to add a seventh consecutive gold and possibly their ninth in the 12 years women’s basketball has been in the Olympics. It would bring USA to a combined 25 gold medals in 5-on-5 basketball.
The world is certainly catching up, and international competition is as captivating as ever before, but they’re still trying to close the gap between themselves and the same two powers that have controlled the basketball universe for so damn long. There will be a day someone else wins the gold, as was the case in the 2019 World Cup, just not yet. We’ll see in 2024.