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Kevin Durant needs to step up for Team USA to win gold

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TOKYO — After the U.S. men’s basketball team lost to France on Sunday, 83-76, giving the Americans their first loss in the Olympics since 2004, Coach Gregg Popovich took umbrage at the idea the outcome was somehow a surprise.

He had a point, of course.

It’s “a diss to the French team [to think] we are supposed to beat them by 30,” Popovich said. “That’s a hell of a team. That’s a little bit of hubris if you think that America should just roll the ball out and win. We have to work like everybody else.”

France is full of good players. Evan Fournier, who torched the U.S. for 28 points, just finished his ninth NBA season. Rudy Gobert, who had 14 points, nine rebounds, is the best defensive player in the league.

Not only is this not the 1992 Dream Team, or even the 2008 Redeem Team on the American side, the opponents aren’t the same, either.

“The gap in talent has shrunk every year as there are more and more good players throughout the world,” Popovich said.

No question.

And the depth of great players that the U.S. always enjoyed is gone — certainly with this roster that saw too many top talents opt out, had to replace two others just last week and didn’t have three key contributors arrive from the NBA Finals until 1 a.m. Sunday, just 18 hours before tipoff.

What the United States does have is Kevin Durant. He's the undeniable best player in these Olympics and likely the key to whether the Americans can win a 16th gold medal here.

Tokyo, Japan, Sunday, July 25, 2021 - TTeam France shooting guard Evan Fournier (10) knocks the ball from Team United States forward Kevin Durant (7) in the second half at Saitama Super Arena.  (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Team France shooting guard Evan Fournier (R) knocks the ball from Team United States forward Kevin Durant in the second half at Saitama Super Arena. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Durant had just 10 points Sunday on 4-of-12 shooting, including just 1 for 6 from deep. He battled foul trouble and was forced to the bench for a critical second-half stretch. He eventually fouled out. He never found his rhythm. His lone free throw came on a technical.

KD didn’t arrive late into town like Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker. He wasn’t a late addition to the roster either. He needed to be better.

He needs to be the star of this team.

Twice the Americans held nine-point leads in this game. Another time it got to 10. Late in the fourth, there was an eight-point gap.

“We gave them all up,” Popovich said.

Some of that was a lack of consistency. “We push the lead out, they come back,” Draymond Green lamented. “We push the lead out, they come back.”

And some of that was the lack of a closer who would step up and finish the French when they were wobbling.

USA Basketball is historically built on having an embarrassment of talent, being able to spread the workload around, not just game to game but possession to possession. Stars upon stars. Leaders upon leaders. Michael, Magic and Larry. Kobe, LeBron and D-Wade.

This isn’t that team.

It’s going to need an alpha dog and with all due respect to Damian Lillard, that has to be Durant. He’s the most gifted player in the world. He’s capable of taking over games. He’s battle-tested with multiple NBA rings.

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 3 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 3 slideshow embed

At 32, he has the experience and gravitas that younger talents such as Jayson Tatum or Booker are still acquiring. Everything and everyone needs to play off him.

This isn’t usually a lead-dog kind of team, but this isn’t anyone’s typical American team. The Olympics are like an NBA free-for-all now — even clubs counting on their best players to win it in the end.

The Americans should get better as this goes on. More time to jell. More time to adjust to the time zone. They should still get out of group play and are plenty good enough to still win the gold. The U.S. was -350 to win gold before its opening game, per BetMGM. But the knockout round starts a week from Tuesday. It’s not like there’s much time to figure things out.

It’s about as rag-tag as this kind of team can be. It’s not optimal.

Which brings everything back to Durant. The Americans have him. No one else does. He needs to play smarter and avoid fouls. He needs to shoot better and then he needs to shoot more often.

Mainly he needs to realize this is his team — and that this team needs him.

Or else Popovich is correct: No one should be surprised when the United States loses.

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