Kevin Durant leads the way as USA too good for Australia

Favourites USA progress to the Tokyo 2020 men’s basketball gold medal match

Kevin Durant of Team United States in action against Australia at Saitama Super Arena. Photograph: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Kevin Durant of Team United States in action against Australia at Saitama Super Arena. Photograph: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

 

Team USA progressed to the Tokyo 2020 men’s basketball gold medal match after downing a valiant Australia in their match-up on Thursday. It was heartbreak for the Boomers as they fell to their fifth Olympic semi-final defeat across five decades. The Australians must now regroup for the bronze medal clash on Saturday, as they continue their search for the nation’s first international medal in men’s basketball.

Stretching back to 1964, Australia and the US have met eight times in Olympic competition. The closest the Boomers had come to defeating the Americans was two 10-point losses, in 2004 and 2016. Victories for Australia in a 2019 friendly and in a pre-Tokyo 2020 warm-up match last month offered some hope - as did a positive first-half performance. But ultimately the Americans’ star power was too much for the Patty Mills-led Boomers, losing 97-78.

Kevin Durant was ever-present for Team USA with 23 points and nine defensive rebounds, while Devin Booker picked up 20 points thanks to his shooting accuracy. Jrue Holiday had eight rebounds and eight assists. For Australia, Mills led the scoring with 15 points but his usually reliable radar was off, only shooting 36 per cent from the field.

The first quarter started cautiously, with each team feeling out the other’s defence. A hungry Australian offence had the better of the early looks, although nerves and a few missed opportunities prevented the Boomers from opening up a significant lead. But a Chris Goulding three-point shot on the buzzer saw Australia head into their quarter-time huddle with a six-point advantage.

Early in the second quarter there was a moment that epitomised the Australian team spirit. After Joe Ingles was roughed up by an American opponent, the Boomers bench leapt from their seats in unison to protest the lack of a foul call. Referees Michael Weiland and Manuel Mazzoni were unimpressed at the insolence, and awarded a technical foul against Australia. But it was worth it for the Australians, a show of team spirit lifting the five on the court.

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It sent the Boomers on a run, stretching their lead to 15 points midway through the second quarter. A lack of concentration then saw the momentum swing, as Team USA clawed their way back into the game - Devin Booker making the most of wide open-look from the corner. By the half-time siren, Australia’s margin had been cut to just three points.

Led by Brooklyn Nets star Durant, Team USA overhauled the deficit at the beginning of the third. By the time Jock Landale made a lay-up midway through proceedings, Australia had been scoreless for seven minutes and the Americans had added 20 points unanswered. A made-for-YouTube Zach LaVine dunk and a Booker three point shot on the buzzer underscored the United States’ dominance as they closed the quarter ahead by 19.

The Australian fightback never came. Despite the best efforts of Mills, Landale and Ingles, Team USA remained in control throughout the final quarter. The final minutes saw sloppiness from both sides as fatigue set in.

The Boomers can feel aggrieved at the officiating by Weiland and Mazzoni, who harshly penalised Australia and gave the Americans the benefit of the doubt. But there can be no questioning that the better team won. Australia is a strong basketball nation and has continued to improve in the past decade. But the gulf between them and Team USA - who have won 15 Olympic gold medals since 1936 - remained evident on Thursday.

“We knew Australia would come out fast and hit us with a nice punch,” said Durant, the Team USA captain, after the win. “We know that teams want to get us down early, see how we respond. A lot of these guys got continuity for years and years so they know how to play with each other. I feel like a lot of teams are expecting us to fold early.

“We stuck with it, stuck with our principles, made a couple of switches on defence, and we were able to get some momentum going into the half. Guys came out with that intensity, making shots as well.”

Australia’s Landale, who recently signed with the San Antonio Spurs, said the third quarter slump cost the Boomers. “We just lost them there in a little patch in that third quarter and it’s tough to come back from 20 down,” he said. “We tried to stick with it and fight back in the fourth but they’re the best players in the world.”

Australia good, Americans better - as has so often been the case for the Boomers on the Olympic stage. On Saturday, they will go again and hope to avenge their one-point defeat in the bronze medal match in 2016, against the loser of the other semi-final between Slovenia and France. Team USA, meanwhile, affirmed their status as gold medal favourites. Plus ça change. - Guardian

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