This year's United States men's basketball team got off to a rocky start – losing two exhibition games and their tournament opener, snapping a 25-game winning streak that dated back to 2004.
But when all was said and all was done, the U.S. stood victorious on the podium Saturday, winning their fourth straight gold medal, Team USA's 16th gold dating back to 1936 in Berlin. (The rest of the world has 4 combined)
In a tournament filled with adversity, Team USA needed a hero – and they found it in Kevin Durant.
One day after announcing a four-year contract extension with the Brooklyn Nets worth $198 million, the three-time NBA champion and former NBA MVP led all scorers with 29 points – and his Team USA resume speaks for itself.
Durant joined Carmelo Anthony as the only men's basketball players to win three Olympic gold medals, and surpassed 'Melo's record to become the leading scorer in U.S. men's history. Durant is also No. 1 for Team USA in points per game, free throws made and three-pointers attempted and made all time.
"That’s a special, special man, and he carried this team like we needed him to, like he’s supposed to coming back for his third Olympics, all-time USA scorer," Durant's former Golden State Warriors teammate Draymond Green said. "There’s been a lot of great players to don this jersey, and he’s No. 1 and that’s a special thing."
Durant has three of the top five scoring games in gold medal game history – his 29 points on Thursday ties him for fourth with Italy's Renato Villalta in 1980 (the U.S. did not participate in those games). Durant scored 30 points in the gold medal matches in 2012 and 2016.
The game was a tight one. The U.S. led by as many as 14 points, but France – who beat the U.S. in its Olympics opening match – stormed back to cut the lead to three. With a three-point lead and under 10 seconds remaining, the Americans passed it in to Durant, who was fouled and calmly sank the two free throws with 8.8 seconds remaining for the final points in an 87-82 victory.
"We went through some real adversity," Durant said after the game. "We lost a tournament game, we lost two exhibition games. We had guys coming in late, and we just fought through everything."
"We wanted them again," Durant said of France. "We wanted to play them again just like we wanted Australia again and we were able to finish this game off."
Durant wasn't the only player to make history on Saturday – when three-time NBA champion JaVale McGee won the gold medal on Saturday, he became part of the first mother and son duo to win gold in Olympic history. McGee's mother, Hall of Famer Pamela McGee, won gold with the U.S. women's basketball team in 1984.
Milwaukee Bucks players Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are also the first teammates to win a gold medal and an NBA championship in the same year since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1992.
A couple of years ago, it was unclear if Durant would even play in these Olympics: After rupturing his Achilles tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals and sitting out the entire subsequent NBA season to rehab from his injury, nothing was guaranteed. But after returning to form with an all-star season, including a Herculean tear through the NBA playoffs that fell just inches short of a conference finals berth, Durant took his talents to Tokyo to compete for Team USA.
Durant, who takes tremendous pride representing Team USA, did not rule out joining the team again in Paris in 2024.
With three NBA championships, a league MVP, two NBA Finals MVPs and four scoring titles, Durant is perpetually in the conversation about the best player in the league.
With his third gold medal, it's hard to dispute Durant's status as the best player in Olympics history.
"I think he’s the best scorer in basketball and he’s going to do what he does, especially on the biggest stage like the Olympic games," France's Rudy Gobert said.
"He’s not special because he’s so talented," coach Gregg Popovich said. "It’s the way he works on his game is more impressive, the relationships he builds with his teammates."
"He’s fearless. I’ve said it before: He’s the most skilled basketball player ever. I mean that,” Team USA assistant coach Kerr said. “There’s nobody that’s his size, 6-11, that combines shooting and ballhandling skills and athleticism. You’ve never seen it before."
"This tournament was a perfect example of why you need the best players to win and win championships," he added. "And Kevin is the best player in the tournament."
It wasn't an easy tournament for this U.S. team, but the way they fought to earn every win, it might be the sweetest.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.