RIO DE JANEIRO — Ten first-time Olympians. Six players who had never played a game for the senior national team before they got here. The shock to the system of three single-digit games in one single Olympics wasn’t all that surprising to USA Basketball officials once you did the roster math.
So that’s why USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo didn’t need a lot of time Sunday night, after the medals were handed out here in Rio, to make an immediate declaration about the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“We can’t go back again with 10 new players,” Colangelo said. “That’s not going to happen.”
“For me,” he added with unmistakable relief, “I’m glad we got past this.”
Colangelo was grateful, mostly, for the presence of the few wise old heads who did make the trip to these Olympics. There they sat in front of the world’s media at the postgame podium from left to right: Mike Krzyzewski, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
The three men most responsible for Team USA’s surviving the absence of all the starry names that, because of injury or a mere desire for extra rest, didn’t make themselves available this summer: LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, et al.
“It’s not just how they played but how they acted and how unselfish they were,” Krzyzewski said of vets Durant and Anthony. “I’m amazed at these guys.”
“Melo’s for sure the leader,” Team USA sixth man Paul George offered. “He’s the voice of this team.”
“We don’t have enough time,” Colangelo said of the outgoing coach, “to talk about how much he has meant to our program.”
Hard as it was to keep track of all the understandable praise flying around, Sunday’s gold-medal dismantling of Serbia was ultimately Durant’s day. He managed to trump the retiring Coach K (who leaves his post with a record of 88-1) and the record-setting Anthony (who became the first men’s basketball player in Olympic history to win three golds) with a performance on par with the 30 points he uncorked in the 2012 gold-medal game in London.
At least it was until Krzyzewski pointed out that the better parallel was mentally rewinding to the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey, Durant’s maiden stint with the national team as part of a super-untested roster.
“To me, what he did in Istanbul is what he did today,” Krzyzewski said, recalling the long-range treys Durant made such a habit of sinking at the 2010 Worlds. “The coaching staff was saying that. In fact he took two shots farther than he ever did in Istanbul. It’s called the ultimate green light.”
The Americans won their final three games in group play in these Olympics by a mere 16 points combined. In the victories over Serbia and France, Durant took nine shots combined.
In the knockout portion of the tournament, Team USA beat Argentina, Spain and Serbia by a total of 63 points, with Durant’s offensive aggressiveness standing out as the clear difference.
“I wasn’t being myself,” Durant admitted. “Coach sat me down and showed me some film from 2010 and he said, ‘I want to see that guy again.'”
Said Colangelo, referring to the considerable debate sparked back home by Durant’s move to the Golden State Warriors and the resulting Durant “duress” he says he’s seen with his own eyes: “This was good for him. For his psyche.”
Durant, for the record, doesn’t dispute that diagnosis.
But he left Brazil looking positively buoyant, which the Warriors must love seeing as much as USAB’s elders.
“I can’t let anybody steal my joy,” Durant said, presumably addressing critics of his free-agency decisions. “[Former Thunder assistant and current Team USA assistant] Monty Williams used to tell me that every day; don’t let anybody steal my joy.”
Anthony knows the feeling. He spent much of these Olympics fielding questions about his belief that a third gold medal takes his resume to the same stratosphere as an NBA championship ring would. But now he’s done playing defense for the summer and insists he, too, has zero future plans to listen to anyone eager to challenge the contention.
“Of course it wasn’t as easy as we would have liked,” Melo said. “[But] this journey that we had here in Rio, starting in [Las] Vegas, you can’t ask for nothing more than that.”
Said Durant: “I’m on cloud nine right now for sure.”
That was evident at the local airport, before Team USA boarded its flight back to the States, when Durant thrust himself into an Anthony interview with SportsCenter and bellowed: “He’s coming back in 2020, baby.”
Except that Anthony really isn’t. Nor is Krzyzewski, who steps aside at last — one Olympics later than he originally planned — to let San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich take over as head coach for the next four years.
Durant, at 27, is obviously still on his upward arc, as good as he looked when it mattered most down here. But an era ended Sunday in South America for USAB.
Ready or not.
“I’ve seen both sides of it,” Anthony said. “I’ve seen the losing side [in the 2004 Olympics in Athens] and I’ve seen what it feels like to win three gold medals.
“I wouldn’t trade that, for anything in the world.”