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Durant finds his bliss as scorer, leading U.S. men to gold

Rio de Janeiro – Beforehand, there had actually been a sense that they were vulnerable. This Olympic men’s basketball team had 10 new players, and no LeBron James, no Steph Curry, no Chris Paul. Four of their wins in Rio had been by 10 points or less. They had struggled to beat Serbia, their opponent in the final, by three points in pool play.

But evidently they were toying with us. This was still USA basketball, after all, a team that hadn’t lost a game since Athens and was 58-1 since Mike Krzyzewski took over the national team a decade ago. Still, there was a whiff of concern, and when Serbia led late in the first quarter, it looked like the Americans were in for a game.

That’s when Kevin Durant stepped forward and made the gold-medal match his own, reminding the world’s basketball fans that the U.S. has the best players in the world and that when “KD” gets on a roll, there’s no one on Earth capable of stopping him.

Durant, who created a stir – and some criticism – in early July by signing with the Warriors as a free agent, scored 21 of his 30 points in a shade under eight minutes of the second quarter, turning a close game into a rout worthy of the Dream Team in 1992.

The Americans won, 96-66, winning their third straight gold medal. At one point in the third quarter, they seemed destined to smash the all-time winning margin of 44 points set by the U.S. way back in 1948. It was like watching an NCAA powerhouse romp at home against some MEAC or SWAC squad just happy to be there for the big paycheck.

Serbia has a team of experienced pros. But they have no one to approximate Durant, a 6-10 freak with a shooting guard’s game and a killer’s mentality. The U.S. coaches felt he had been too passive earlier in the Olympics, a time when the NBA stars need to sacrifice playing time and stats because of the sheer depth and talent on the roster.

“I was trying too hard to sacrifice, to make the extra pass,” Durant said. “I was taking away from my game. I wasn’t being myself.”

Krzyzewski sat Durant down and showed him game film of the 2010 World Championships, when Durant scored 23 points a game and was a willing and dynamic shooter.

“Coach said, ‘I want to see that guy again,’ ” Durant said.

Durant, who led the NBA in points five straight years from 2009-14, didn’t need to be asked twice. With the U.S. up, 16-15, Durant pulled up from beyond the top of the key for a three-pointer to put the Americans up four heading into the first break.

He was just getting started.

Early in the second, with the Americans up eight, Durant took a feed from DeMarcus Cousins – who was dominant inside all game – and knocked down a 25-footer to make it 28-17. After Serbia hit a three, Durant pulled up for another bomb and it was 31-20.

Seconds later, KD stole an ill-advised pass at the top of the key, with no Serbian anywhere in sight, and went down and slammed it home for a 33-20 advantage. He had scored eight points in 58 seconds. Still, he wasn’t done.

Durant hit two more threes around a Cousins hoop. Just to show a little diversity, he drove through the Serbians for another dunk. On the last two possessions of the first half, he hit a shot off the backboard. Then, on a gorgeous set where the U.S. players zipped four passes around the perimeter, he drained one last three before the half.

It was 52-29. Durant was hotter than summer at the equator, hotter than a Brazilian when you mention Ryan Lochte. And the Serbians were done.

“They have a team of superstars,” said Serbia’s Stefan Markovic. “If you let them, they will kill you. Each of their 12 guys can do that.”

Not quite like that. Watching Durant go off in the second quarter, I thought, this is the best offensive player in the world. Then I remembered that Curry had set the NBA on fire last season and had people calling him the best shooter who ever lived.

Then I thought to myself, “My God, they’re on the same team.” It seems almost unfair to have Durant and Curry both playing for Golden State. Oh, and let’s not forget Olympian Klay Thompson, who might be a better streak shooter than either of them.

If this is how Durant performs on the big stage, surrounded by a bunch of all-stars, the NBA is in big trouble next season. The Warriors might not win as many games, or have the same remarkable team chemistry, but boy, will they put on a show.

Durant still hasn’t lost the simple thrill that comes from playing hoops and being part of a winner.

“I just tried to center everything around the game of basketball,” Durant said. “I love the game so much. I started playing it because it was fun to me. I can’t let anybody steal my job. I get joy when I’m out there playing, and it went to another level playing alongside these players and playing for Coach K and his staff.”

Krzyzewski, 69, will retire as national coach after winning three gold medals, giving way to Gregg Popovich. He now has 10 major championships – five NCAA titles at Duke, three Olympic gold medals and two World Championships. He shared the interview stage with Durant and Carmelo Anthony, who became the first men’s player to win three golds.

“What I love most are these guys,” Coach K said, “not just these two but the guys who have set the commitment, because it’s set an example for our younger generation in the United States. It’s not just how they played, but how they acted and how unselfish they were.”

Durant was a shining example, though he was a little too selfless along the way. When it came time for the knockout games, he found his joy in the most essential place, in shooting the basketball as well as any big man who ever lived.

“When I’m smiling out there and screaming and hitting my shots, showing my emotion, that’s when I’m really just lost in the game,” he said. “I felt the energy from my teammates and coaches, and I just wanted to go out there and be who I am.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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