As the final buzzer blew and USA Basketball exhaled Friday in the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo with the scoreboard flashing 87-82 for the U.S. over France in the Olympic gold medal game, the social media site Twitter likewise sounded off. About Zach LaVine.
Not that LaVine carried the USA team to victory.
That was Kevin Durant, the world's best basketball player, once again digging the USA out of another poor shooting start and deficit and scoring 29 points while making every crucial basket to hold off a relentless French team led by Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier with 16 points each. Jayson Tatum added 19 points for the U.S. team and Jrue Holiday and Damian Lillard 11 each.
LaVine had five points, though he attempted just three shots while making two, his back-to-back layup and three pointer in the midst of the USA run gave the USA team a late 14-point third quarter lead.
France had defeated USA Basketball to open the Olympics, and the U.S. survived a meltdown with a seven-point lead in the last 23 seconds that was reduced to a basket. Durant's free throws provided the relief.
And then as Nicholas Batum missed a desperate three with six seconds left, Durant appropriately had the ball. He threw ahead to LaVine, who casually took a few steps and left handed dribbles. And as the horn began to screech a dirge for France, LaVine lifted off, bookending the ball with his right hand, switching back to the left and going airborne, pushing the ball through his legs as he rose toward the rim and then putting it into his right hand, cocking the ball and slamming it home.
The points didn't count, but the message did.
Zach LaVine provided an exclamation point to the USA's victory, slamming how a between-the-legs the dunk just after the final buzzer sounded
USA Basketball, maligned, doubted and condemned, losers of a pair of Las Vegas exhibition games including to Nigeria and then barely escaping the opening round after a loss to France is the Olympic gold medal champion.
Say it with the emphasis of a slam dunk.
And don't say you can't win with Zach LaVine.
In fact, coach Gregg Popovich girding for that last possession stand against a potentially shocking collapse inserted LaVine back into the game for his defense.
Durant was the unquestioned star of the team, saving the USA team from big deficits in several games with a more serious concentration of mid range shots. Durant was the only U.S. player to average more than 20 points. Jayson Tatum was second at 15.7.
LaVine dipped to 9.7 for the tournament after modest scoring games the last two. But he finished the six games first on the USA team in overall shooting and three-point shooting (only Draymond Green was higher but with few attempts). LaVine was third in assists and first in assist-to-turnover ratio at almost seven to one. He was one of six USA players with a double digit plus on the plus/minus chart and fourth along the USA players in offensive efficiency.
He can wear his gold medal proudly.
Zach LaVine's a winner.
He joined a joyous and relieved USA team parading around the basketball court after the game, bouncing in a circle of delight and draped in American flags.
Zach LaVine gets an easy bucket at the hoop while in front of France's Rudy Gobert
"We wanted them again," Durant said about the rematch with France. "We went through real adversity, losing an Olympic game, losing two exhibitions. To fight through this adversity against a great team, to come together so fast. It was beautiful to see, it was beautiful to be a part of. We fought through everything."
Particularly the reservations, that this USA team was likely booked into a more drab room; color it silver or bronze.
With two exhibition game losses to start their run and blowing the late seven-point lead to France and losing in the Olympics opener, this favored USA team didn't seem the favorite of many.
The roster was doubted for its lack of size and concentration on individual scorers. Popovich's coaching was questioned as out of step with these superstar players and the increasingly talented international field with NBA All-Stars on several rosters. Three USA players participated in the NBA Finals and arrived barely in time for the first game.
The U.S. team recovered to defeat weak Iran and Czech Republic teams to emerge from the Group play. LaVine had 13 points in each of those games. But that meant a game with No. 2 world ranked Spain. Despite falling behind by 10 in the first half, the USA rolled over Spain in the quarterfinals and then Australia in the semifinals after falling behind by 15 in the second quarter. In both games, Durant's scoring saved the U.S. from perhaps irretrievable deficits as starters Damian Lillard and Devin Booker shot poorly.
The USA being carried by Durant again with 21 first half points of the USA's 44 led much of the first half. And by five at halftime after a 12-8 opening deficit and missing its first eight threes. The U.S. missed its first 10 threes in its previous game. The U.S. team shot a dismal 28 percent on threes against France and again was saved by its mid range marksmanship.
This time it was the U.S's defensive play that forced 18 France turnovers and added five blocks, three by Bam Adebayo. France didn't have any, though has a large rebounding edge. But it was the hustling defensive play to offset French size. France in the first half continually rolled Gobert to the basket against the USA's switching defensive scheme. But several times late in that second quarter LaVine fronted Gobert on the switch to force the ball around the perimeter again.
The USA continued with that effort in the third quarter, it's best in these Olympics, and seemed on the verge of dominating with a 71-57 lead late in the third quarter. France shot back within 71-63 after three quarters and opened the fourth with another three to get within one basket.
Lillard, who had a poor shooting tournament, finally made a pair of shots and Tatum added a three for a USA 10-point lead. But the isolation-oriented Tatum dribbled one off his foot going between his legs multiple times and Lillard again missed a quick, long three to give France a chance. Lillard then missed two free throws with 23 seconds left and a seven-point lead. France scored and trapped and Jrue Holiday threw away the ball and France got a pair of free throws to get within 85-82 with 10 seconds left. But the U.S. got the ball into Durant, who made a pair of free throws before LaVine made the final statement.
The gold for the U.S. team was the 100th medal for the U.S. in these games and fourth straight gold medal for USA Basketball in Jerry Colangelo's perfect run as managing director. In 18 Olympics in basketball, U.S. teams have 16 gold medals, one silver and one bronze.