Just 40 minutes away from competing for a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, the United States men’s national team played the first 16 of those without making a single 3-pointer. Not that the Americans didn’t give it their best — sorry, worst — shot.
It did not seem to matter how the deep shots developed or who attempted them. Kevin Durant tried. Jrue Holiday tried. Khris Middleton, Zach LaVine and Jayson Tatum all tried. Team USA launched 10 3-pointers without once connecting. Let’s not pretend Suns star Devin Booker did not brick one in that series, as well, but he was the guy who stopped all this foolishness by stepping into a jumper from beyond the top of the key and sending it through the goal with 3:22 left in the second quarter.
This was the single biggest moment in a game filled with many examples of mastery from a U.S. team that played the final 24 minutes as though eager to remind everyone where the game was invented, and perfected. The Americans eventually transformed a 15-point first-half deficit into a 97-78 semifinal victory over Australia.
Booker has been to the Final Four with Kentucky and this past season’s NBA Finals with the Suns without earning a championship, and now he will play in a gold-medal game at the Olympics. He declared it would be a “dream come true” to leave Japan with gold.
“It’s something I’ve been watching for a really long time,” Booker told NBC Sports. “You know, a lot of guys have graced these jerseys and put them on, so we’re representing the United States.”
Among the legends of the game who’ve worn USA uniforms at the Olympics are Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. And Durant, who has scored more points at the Olympics than all of them.
Every single victory the U.S. has claimed at these Games, now four in a row, has been largely the responsibility of Durant, who scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds in this one. He converted a series of absurdly difficult pull-up jumpers to keep the Americans at least remotely competitive early on.
It was Booker, though, whose effort at both ends epitomized the team’s drive to gain victory over the experienced, cohesive Boomers. He scored 20 points on just 10 shots. In a third quarter that saw the U.S. surge from a 45-42 deficit to a 74-55 lead — that’s 32 points for the Americans, 10 for the Aussies — Booker managed all of this:
- Nailed a 3-pointer to effectively erase one made on the previous possession by Boomers guard Patty Mills, stopping a potential rally
- Chased down a rebound of Chris Goulding’s missed trey
- Sank another 3-pointer to wipe away one from Australia’s Nick Kay, for a second time extending the team’s lead from six points to nine
- Took a pass from Holiday following an offensive rebound, scored on a layup and drew a foul from Kay, then converted the free throw for the team’s first double-figure lead
- Assisted Tatum on a 3-pointer to make it a 15-point game
- And, finally, just before the buzzer sounded, fired up a deep jumper to end the quarter with the U.S. in front, 74-55
No wonder Booker ended the game plus-30 in his 28 minutes of playing time.
“I think we started guarding,” Booker said. “We picked it up at the end of the second quarter, and once we started playing some defense, we could get out in transition and play some good basketball. Guarding, that’s what it comes down to. That’s what we talked about in the locker room. Offense is going to come. We have a lot of talented guys out here, but we have to be on the same page on defense.”
For the second straight game, the U.S. coaching staff led by Gregg Popovich conceived an ideal defensive plan to take away the most concerning options. In this game, it was Mills and shooter Joe Ingles, who entered averaging a combined 31 points per game on 41 percent 3-point shooting.
Holiday took the primary responsibility for defending Mills, as he has with most of the opponents’ top options, and consistently ran him off the 3-point line. Mills hit three treys, but only five of his 14 shots were from deep. Ingles scored Australia’s first two baskets on 3-pointers, but he rarely was left alone again and struggled to defend any of the U.S. perimeter players. Together, they scored just 24 points, made five 3-pointers and were a combined minus-37.
“We knew this team was going to hit us with their best punch from the start,” Durant said. “I think they wanted to get us down early in hopes that we panic. And we didn’t. Going into halftime, we made plays. We got stops. Coach put in a good defensive scheme at the end of the second quarter, and we were able to get some momentum. And we came out in the third quarter with amazing energy and fight, and we were able to get a good lead.
“I feel like everybody is making second and third efforts on the defensive side of the ball. We saw Zach LaVine get in the passing lanes. You’ve seen Bam [Adebayo] block shots. You’ve seen Jrue block shots in the post. . . . I think all of us know what it takes to make a great defensive team, make effort, and that’s what we did.”
It remains astounding the U.S. could be getting so much from Holiday as a defender and now Booker as an all-around player when neither was able, because the NBA Finals concluded in Milwaukee just three days before the Opening Ceremonies in Tokyo, to gain any significant preparation time or any rest at all. Booker played 89 games and 3,150 minutes in seven months, then hopped a jet with Holiday and Middleton to reach Tokyo in time for the initial Olympics group game against France.
In the quarterfinal win over Spain, Booker dove on the floor to save a ball from going over the end line, passed it behind his back to Durant while still in a prone position and would have had the highlight play of the game if the pass ahead for a U.S. layup had not been too strong. Booker had made his point, though, which he reiterated often Thursday.
He will do whatever is required to win gold. He’ll sleep in September.