U.S. men’s basketball dominant once again

TOKYO — After a sluggish start, the U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team (2-1) earned a spot in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with a 119-84 win over the Czech Republic (1-2) in the final Group A game at Saitama Super Arena on Saturday night.

The win locked up second place in the group for the U.S behind undefeated France (3-0). The Americans’ 82-point differential across their three games means they most likely will be the top second-place group finisher and enter the quarterfinals in Pot D with the three group winners.

Jayson Tatum scored 21 of his game-high 27 points in the second half. Kevin Durant scored 23 points and racked up team highs with eight rebounds and six assists on a night he passed Carmelo Anthony to become the all-time leading U.S. men’s Olympic scorer.

Durant started the game with 331 points and pulled even with Anthony’s record 336 points in the first quarter before taking over the No. 1 spot. He now has 354 career Olympic points. Durant also nabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists.

“You just think about all the players that have played in this program,” Durant said. “It’s pretty cool to be amongst names like that. Carmelo is a guy that I played on two Olympic teams with, and I’ve seen his approach to these games and I’ve tried to steal some of his techniques.

“It’s still pretty weird for me to do stuff like this because I play a team sport, and I try my hardest to make it about the group. But it is special to do something like that. Scoring is something I’ve worked on my whole career and expanded my whole career. To consistently do it is pretty cool.”

Zach LaVine and Jrue Holiday, both of whom battled hard on defense, chipped in with 13 and 11 points, respectively. JaVale McGee added 10 points in the final 4:12 of the game.

Blake Shilb led the Czechs with 17 points, 14 of which came in the first half. Captain Tomas Satoranksy tallied 12 points, six rebounds and eight assists. Big men Ondrej Balvin and Jan Vesely caused problems down low for the U.S, combining for 28 points.

The top-ranked Americans started slowly, missing five of their first six shots and going 4-12 from 3 en route to an 18-point first quarter. The Czechs built a 9-2 lead within the first two minutes of the game, leading to an early timeout by U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich. That lead ballooned to 10 when a Jan Vesely basket put the Europeans up 19-9.

But the USA slowly started to find its range. Durant found a wide-open LaVine for a corner 3. Then, after a Balvin basket, LaVine hit an off-balance line-drive 3 with the shot clock expiring to pull the U.S. within six. Damian Lillard hit another 3 from deep to cut the deficit to three. But the 12th-ranked Czechs scored the last five points of the quarter to head into the first break up 25-18.

The three-time-defending gold medalists turned up the intensity in the second quarter, outscoring the Czechs 29-18. Holiday said the difference came on the defensive end.

“Our defense did a really good job of picking up and getting to the ball, and then being able to rebound,” he said. “First quarter they were throwing it into the paint, throwing it into the bigs and doing whatever they wanted to. I think for us that’s just attention to detail, trying to front that post, trying to make it hard for them.”

Durant’s 3-pointer at 6:19 of the second quarter moved him into first on the team’s all-time Olympic scoring list and gave the U.S. its first lead of the game at 34-33. He followed it up with another pull-up triple to extend the lead to four. The U.S. wouldn’t trail again and headed into halftime up 47-43.

The top-ranked Americans maintained their high defensive intensity in the third quarter and found their 3-point stroke. The 12th-ranked Czechs kept it close early in the third before a 10-2 U.S. run pushed the lead to 11 midway through the quarter.

Durant scored seven of his 10 third-quarter points, including a 3 as the quarter ended, in the final five minutes to help the U.S. build an 82-60 advantage heading into the fourth. Tatum’s red-hot shooting kept the game out of reach.

“It was a good night,” Tatum said. “The game just opened up in the second half, the way we were moving it. Obviously, we’re starting to shoot the ball better now than we did in the first game, and we’re getting more comfortable.”

After that cold start from beyond the arc in the first quarter, the U.S. went 16-30 from deep over the final three quarters.

“We started out slow,” Durant said. “They hit us in the mouth early, but were able to take that punch and play a great team game on both ends.”

If the U.S. is the top second-place group finisher, it will enter the quarterfinals in Pot D with the three group winners. The other two second-place group finishers and the top two third-place group finishers will make up Pot E.

There will be a draw to match the Pot D and Pot E teams in their quarterfinal matchups. It will take place after the Group C game between Slovenia (2-0) and Spain (2-0) scheduled to tip off at 4:20 a.m. EDT on Sunday.

Heading into the quarterfinals, Popovich says the team has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time after its two exhibition losses in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games and the loss to France on Sunday.

“We were behind the eight ball in the beginning, and we’re making some fast progress. We still have a lot of improvement that we must and can make,” he said. “I think the losses in the beginning put a laser focus on how you have to play with these rules, in this environment against these talented teams who execute wonderfully. If you don’t have respect for your opponents, you’re going to be in big trouble. We learned that the hard way.

“I think our guys have done a good job gaining ground day by day, practice by practice, and hopefully we’ll continue that as we move forward. And we have to if we want to be successful.”

TOKYO, JAPAN –  JULY 31: Kevin Durant #7 of the USA Men’s National Team shoots the ball during the game against the Czech Republic Men’s National Team during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on July 31, 2021 at the Super Saitama Arena in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)