Zach LaVine took flight Wednesday and now USA Basketball is walking on air following a 97-78 victory over Australia that sends the U.S. team to the Friday morning gold medal game.
The USA will play France with Rudy Gobert. France defeated the U.S. team in its first Olympic game late last month.
LaVine, the Bulls high flying guard, had a mostly quiet overall offensive game with nine points, three rebounds and two assists. But it was his two steals that helped raise the roof in the sound stage Saitama Super Arena with a one handed driving slam off one of the steals and and two-hand power slam with a defender riding him for 45 feet on the next.
They came in the third and fourth quarter U.S. runs preceding a third LaVine highlight, a lob dunk on a fast break pass from Jrue Holiday that enabled the U.S. team to shake a pesky and patterned Australian team that led by 15 points in the first half.
USA star Kevin Durant, who rallied the U.S. from another lethargic start with dominant play in the crucial 28-4 second and third quarter run that broke open the game for the U.S., credited LaVine's defense in the passing lanes among the across the board defensive efforts from the U.S. scoring stars.
"We were flying around on the defense side of the ball," said Durant, who led the U.S. with 23 points followed by Devin Booker with 20. "We knew they would hit us with their best shot and hope we would get down and panic. We didn't panic. We came out in the third quarter with amazing energy and fight and were able to get the lead."
Kevin Durant praised LaVine's defense following Team USA's semifinal victory over Australia
Though it might not have come, or come so quickly, if not for Durant, who was a savior in the first half when it seemed like Australia would again surprise the U.S. after an exhibition win in Las Vegas last month.
With precise cutting and ball movement while the U.S. again fell into stagnant, isolation play, Australia led 24-18 after one quarter and 41-26 midway through the second quarter. U.S. players continued to fire away and awry with threes, two of 14 in the first half. That's when Durant began to wave off screens and take over, rallying the U.S. within 45-42 at halftime with his soft shooting touch in almost a personal 14-4 run. Australia was 13-0 on fast breaks in the half and seven of 15 on threes. The U.S. missed its first 10 threes.
But the USA team began to push the Australia players farther out on screens and against a smaller Australia team stopped settling for threes and drove for scores. LaVine was a big part of the 32-10 USA third quarter with his first steal and driving dunk and then another early in the fourth as the USA moved just one step from its goal, the gold.
LaVine only played about 18 minutes Wednesday with more reliance on defense. But he still ranks fifth on the USA team in scoring at 11 per game, first in assists at 4.5, first in overall shooting at 57.7 percent and tied for first with Jrue Holiday in three-point marksmanship at 50 percent. LaVine ranks third on the team in overall efficiency and fourth in plus/minus.
These games are testing their mettle. Now a medal is guaranteed. But there's one special metal they desire. Going for the Gold.