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'They're still the favorites to me': How Kevin Durant and Team USA started to find their form

Yahoo! Sports logo Yahoo! Sports 7/31/2021 Dan Wetzel

TOKYO — In the two games since the debacle against France to open these Olympics, the U.S. men’s basketball team has scored 239 points. These are 40-minute games, mind you.

It opened the second half here against the Czech Republic by hitting 21-of-25 shots en route to an easy 119-84 victory.

Kevin Durant was firing on all cylinders offensively, pouring in 23 points on just 11 shots. 

“It’s tough to make any adjustment when a guy is hitting shots as a 7-footer,” Czech captain Tomas Satoransky said. 

Jayson Tatum got going to the tune of 27 points for the U.S. The defense in the second half was stifling.

Simply put, whatever the Americans were a week ago — rag-tagged and jet-lagged — they are a lot better now. At least against Iran and the Czechs. Is that enough? We’ll see, but despite the loss to France this is the Americans’ tournament to lose. Or so they think.

How confident is this team?

“Pretty confident,” said Jrue Holiday.

“Extremely,” said JaVale McGee.

“We don’t plan on getting bronze or silver,” said Keldon Johnson.

SAITAMA, JAPAN - JULY 31: Kevin Durant #7 of Team United States reacts against Czech Republic during the second half of a Men's Basketball Preliminary Round Group A game on day eight of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on July 31, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports SAITAMA, JAPAN - JULY 31: Kevin Durant #7 of Team United States reacts against Czech Republic during the second half of a Men's Basketball Preliminary Round Group A game on day eight of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on July 31, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The hard work begins Tuesday when the knockout round starts. The U.S. will face Spain, Italy or Slovenia when the bracket is set Sunday night. Team USA will need to be at its best because the competition will be improved, but at least in the second half here Saturday night, the Americans showed their best.

“Their biggest strength is that anyone can light it up,” Satoransky said. “They are the best team in the world. I think the gap is getting smaller between USA Basketball and the rest of the world, but obviously they have the most skilled players. They are still the favorite for me.”

There are roster issues, of course. Size is one. The need for Durant to play about four positions at once is another. The lack of intensity out of the gate Saturday wasn’t great as the Czechs built a lead. The U.S. could come back on them. What about if they pull that with Australia?

“If you don’t come ready,” Coach Gregg Popovich said, “what happened to us in the first half happens.”

That said, this is still the United States and this is still a roster with a ton of weapons. When you can get just five points from Devin Booker and eight from Damian Lillard and still win by 35, you’ve got options.

“Some nights it might be me,” said Durant, who hit 8 of 11 from the floor. “Last game it was Dame. Tonight JT led us in scoring.”

The players and coaches said the loss to France was a blessing. The Americans blew an eight-point lead, two nine-point leads and a 10-point lead in the loss. It shouldn’t take defeat to snap everyone to attention. Still, that doesn’t mean it didn’t.

“Losing definitely helps you grow,” Holiday said. “It definitely helps you lock in and be able to pay attention to details and see what you did wrong.”

“It would be disingenuous to say we wanted to lose on purpose so we could learn things,” Popovich said. “That’s kind of ignorant if I said that. But circumstances should be taken advantage of, win or lose.

“We were behind the 8-ball early and are making some fast progress. We still have a lot of improvement that we must and can make. But the losses in the beginning put a laser focus on how you have to play under these rules in this environment against these talented teams.

Popovich said they’ve been “gaining ground, practice by practice.” Holiday noted the marked improvement over the course of the week they’ve been together. Durant said the talent is there.

This is no one’s idea of a Dream Team. Too many stars opted out either due to COVID-19 protocols over here or out of a desire to rest after the pandemic pushed two NBA seasons into a short time frame. Three players arrived 18 hours before the opener because they were jetting in from the NBA Finals.

Two more — McGee and Johnson — joined only a week prior to the Olympics because Bradley Beal got COVID and Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo admitted he added Kevin Love to the roster simply because Love asked ... and claimed he was in shape.

He wasn’t,” Colangelo said.

So Love didn’t come. The whole thing speaks to a wing-and-prayer of a process. You can just ask to be on the Olympic team?

a man with a racket: USA's Jayson Tatum goes to the basket in the men's preliminary round group A basketball match between USA and Czech Republic during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on July 31, 2021. (Photo by Brian SNYDER / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BRIAN SNYDER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports USA's Jayson Tatum goes to the basket in the men's preliminary round group A basketball match between USA and Czech Republic during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on July 31, 2021. (Photo by Brian SNYDER / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BRIAN SNYDER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

As a positive, McGee noted that he was able to jell quickly because he’s bounced around to seven NBA teams (including Denver twice) across 11 seasons and pretty much knows everyone.

"Half the guys I had already been teammates with,” McGee said. “I've been on a lot of teams obviously. The crazy part is some of the other countries, I've been teammates with some of those guys, too."

So this isn’t the Michael-Magic-Larry crew. This isn’t the meticulous process of the 2008 Redeem Team. The U.S. can’t change things now, and this team is still good enough to secure the ultimate prize. The second half here showed that much.

“Obviously they are the biggest favorite for the gold medal,” Satoransky said. “But they aren’t going to have it easy.”

This team wouldn’t have it any other way.

a group of people riding on the back of a man © Provided by Yahoo! Sports

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