SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — Nothing about the summer was easy for the U.S. men’s basketball team, and neither was the gold-medal game.
The Americans expected nothing less.
And in the end, their Olympic reign continues.
Kevin Durant scored 29 points and joined Carmelo Anthony as the only three-time men’s gold medalists in Olympic history and the U.S. held off France 87-82 on Saturday to win the title at the Tokyo Games — ending a summer that started with sputters but closed with celebration.
Durant sealed it with two free throws with 8.8 seconds left, making the outcome academic. The lead was five, France’s final possession was irrelevant, and it was over. The U.S. players gathered for a hug at midcourt, Durant, Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green wrapped themselves in American flags, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich had a long hug with his assistants and the journey was complete.
“I’m so happy for Pop, the staff, the players, the country,” said a teary-eyed USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, who was overseeing the men’s program for a fourth and final Olympics and won gold in every one. “It’s a great way to finish.”
Jayson Tatum added 19 points, Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday each scored 11 for the U.S. — which knew nothing but gold would make this trip a success.
“I think it’s more joy than relief, but definitely some relief,” Lillard said. “Because of the expectations that get placed on Team USA, obviously it’s going to be some relief.”
Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert each scored 16 for France, which now has four silver medals — all coming after gold-medal-game losses to the U.S. Guerschon Yabusele scored 13, Nando de Colo had 12 and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot scored 11 for France.
“They played better,” Fournier conceded, as Popovich stopped to hug him. “They played better.”
Frank Ntilikina’s 3-pointer got France within 73-70 with 5:42 left, but the U.S. had a quick answer — a 9-2 run that restored a 10-point lead on Tatum’s 3-pointer.
From there, it was just a matter of finishing the job. The summer started with two exhibition losses, the Olympics started with a loss to France, and none of that seemed to matter much at the end.
The mission was accomplished: Gold, again — the 16th time in 19 Olympic tries for the U.S.
For some, it adds to family legacies. Jrue Holiday now is an Olympic gold medalist, just like his wife Lauren was twice with the U.S. women’s national soccer team. JaVale McGee now has Olympic gold, just like his mother Pamela won with the U.S. women in basketball at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“It’s an amazing feeling, man,” said McGee, who adds gold to his three NBA titles. “I’ve got a gold medal. My mother has a gold medal. We’re the first to do it, mother-son duo. It’s an amazing feeling. You can’t really explain it. Just knowing you’re the best in the world, amazing, man.”
For Milwaukee Bucks teammates Holiday and Khris Middleton, it’s admission into a rare club: Before now, only Scottie Pippen (who did it twice), Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving had won an NBA title and Olympic gold in the same year.
“Definitely a great summer,” Holiday said.
And for Popovich, it completes an Olympic journey that started a half-century ago. He was playing for the United States Air Force Academy, tried unsuccessfully to make the 1972 U.S. Olympic team— “the powers that be actually selected Doug Collins instead of me, it’s hard to believe,” Popovich joked earlier this summer — then accepted the task of replacing Mike Krzyzewski as the U.S. coach for this Olympic cycle.
“Being part of the Olympics has been a dream,” Popovich said.
Popovich insists this is not about his legacy, but his players and assistants might disagree with him on that one.
“I’m just thrilled for Pop and for Jerry,” U.S. assistant coach Steve Kerr said. “Pop has been thinking about this for the last four or five years. Jerry is the one who turned USA Basketball around after the ’04 Olympic loss. ... We wanted to send Jerry out with the gold medal. Thrilled for him, thrilled for Pop.”
The U.S. missed its first eight 3-point tries before Durant got one to drop with 2:04 left in the opening quarter, starting what became a 21-8 run by the Americans on the way to a 39-26 lead midway through the second quarter.
Just as he was when the U.S. was down against Spain and Australia earlier in the knockout round, Durant stepped up at the biggest moments.
“He’s phenomenal,” Adebayo said.
France responded, closing the half on a 13-5 spurt and getting within 44-39 at the break, then within two early in the third quarter.
And after the U.S. briefly led by 14, Nicolas Batum — who saved his team with a last-second block to close out a win over Slovenia in the semifinals — beat the third-quarter buzzer with a 3-pointer that cut the U.S. lead to 71-63 entering the fourth.