All-Star's performance in Worlds set stage for prime role in Rio
POSTED: Aug 18, 2016 10:45 PM ET
USA forward Kevin Durant (5) leads the Team USA in scoring with an average of 18.5 points per game after six contests in Rio.
RIO DE JANEIRO — In 2010, the United States Men's National Team took 12 rookies to the World Championship in Istanbul. None of them were first-year players in the NBA, but all were representing the U.S. on the Senior level for the first time.
Not one member from the star-studded 2008 Olympic Team made the trip. This roster featured role players like Tyson Chandler and Lamar Odom, as well as young stars like Stephen Curry (22), Kevin Love (22), Derrick Rose (21), Russell Westbrook (21) and Kevin Durant (21).
That looks like a stacked roster now, but it was unproven at the time. All those young guys had to play four elimination games against veteran international talent. And that's when one of them separated himself from the pack.
After averaging 17.7 points through the first six games, Durant dropped 33 on Russia in the quarterfinals. Two days later, he went for 38 against Lithuania in the semis.
Since NBA players started participating in international tournaments in 1992, the U.S. has played 107 games at the Olympics or World Championship. And in those 107 games, a U.S. player has scored at least 32 points only four times. Durant was responsible for half of those instances in the span of three days.
"They needed that at that point," Carmelo Anthony, the man responsible for the other two 32-plus performances, said last week. "As NBA players, we find rhythms, and different players' rhythms come at different times. KD's rhythm came at the last three games where he just caught fire. He's one of the best in the world at that. When he catches a rhythm, there's nothing nobody can do about it."
Durant wasn't done. In the gold medal game, the U.S. played against Turkey, by far the best defensive team that it had faced all tournament. And the hosts -- who would sometimes play a lineup that included four guys 6-10 or taller -- had an incredible crowd behind them.
In an atmosphere unlike anything he'd ever played in front of, Durant wasn't fazed. He scored 28 points, shooting 7-for-13 from 3-point range, to lead the U.S. to its first World Championship gold in 16 years. By the fourth quarter, the Istanbul crowd, which had been cheering so hard for its team and whistling so loud whenever the Americans had the ball, could do nothing but salute Durant with applause. It wasn't quite Rocky IV, but it was similar.
And it was a coming out party of sorts for Durant. It's not like he wasn't a potent scorer before, but those last three games in Turkey were him going into full flamethrower mode on a team that had plenty more scoring talent.
"I'm always confident and know what I can do out there," Durant said last week. "I didn't expect to do what I did, because it's the international game and we had so many great players. But I always knew I had that in me. It just took a while, especially on that stage, for me to be comfortable in that role."
U.S. National Teams are teams of stars, many of whom average 20-plus points per game in the NBA. Scoring is generally balanced, with no player scoring much more than anybody else. Stars defer to other stars and they all generally want to share the spotlight. But 2010 was different, because Durant went into alpha-male mode when his team needed it most.
Since NBA players started playing in international tournaments in 1992, almost every American-born star has worn the red, white and blue. But none have averaged as many points per game in a single tournament as Durant did in the 2010 World Championship (22.8). No other U.S. player averaged double figures that year. Durant's 205 total points in 2010 are 23 more than any other American has ever scored in an Olympic or World Championship tournament (before or after '92).
Durant has taken that experience into the Olympics in 2012 and 2016. And the medal rounds seem to bring out his aggressiveness. His one other 30-point performance in a USA uniform was in the gold medal game in 2012. And on Wednesday, after taking less than seven shots in three of his five pool play games, Durant busted out with 27 points (on 9-for-13 shooting) in the USA's quarterfinal win over Argentina. Flame-throwing K.D. was back.
"I just didn't care about the outcome of the game," Durant said afterward. "I was telling myself before I left the room today that I'm at my best when I don't care if we win or lose. It might be different for other players, but for me, I'm more free and more aggressive and the game is way more fun for me if I don't care about the outcome. I know if I go out there and be who I am, the outcome will dictate itself. So I just try to play and be free out there and not worry about anything."
I'm always confident and know what I can do out there. I didn't expect to do what I did, because it's the international game and we had so many great players. But I always knew I had that in me. It just took a while, especially on that stage, for me to be comfortable in that role.
– Kevin Durant on his role on Team USA
It was another addition to the Durant's medal-round resume.
"He's an alpha," Paul George said. "He enjoys those moments."
Durant is THE alpha male on a team full of them. And he's the guy that USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski leans on as much as any player he's had on the national team.
"I don't think he feels pressure," Krzyzewski said Thursday. "When other people might feel pressure, I don't think he does. And as a result, he's produced. And we want him not to pass up shots."
Anyone on this 2016 team will tell you that offense isn't their concern as they prepare for Friday's semifinal against Spain. And yes, if the U.S. is going to lose one of its next two games, it will more likely be about its defense. But Spain the No. 1 defensive team in these Olympics, having allowed just 95 points per 100 possessions through six games.
The U.S. will need flame-throwing K.D. again. And that trip to Istanbul will continue to pay dividends for him and for his team.
"It just makes me more comfortable at being who I am out there," Durant said of his experience in 2010. "You tend to want to sacrifice and move the ball and try to play off your teammates, because everybody's so great here. But I learned in maybe the third or fourth game over there, Coach just told me don't worry about that. Just be who I am. And ever since then, and when I play for Team USA, I don't change anything."
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