RIO DE JANEIRO – Kevin Durant made sure Team USA put an exclamation point on the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
He scored 30 points as the United States won the gold medal in men’s basketball Sunday, routing Serbia 96-66 after leading by as many as 41 points.
“I’m glad we won big – I’m just glad we won it at the end of the day,” Durant said. “I’m on Cloud 9 now for sure.”
For the first time in history, the United States won both the first gold medal (shooter Ginny Thrasher in women’s 10-meter air rifle) and the last at an Olympic Games in summer competition.
Good shooting played a part in the bookend gold medals. Durant scored 24 points in the first half on 64 percent shooting and in the second quarter he outscored Serbia all by himself 18-14 with seven baskets, including four 3-pointers.
“They are superstars,” said Serbia’s Stefan Marcovic. “If you let them play like they want, they will kill you. Each of their 12 guys can do that. They do it throughout the season.”
Team USA has now won 25 straight games in Olympic competition dating back to the bronze-medal game in 2004. The U.S. has won gold medals in 15 of the 18 Olympics in which it has competed and has an overall record of 138-5.
For 10 of the 12 U.S. players, feeling an Olympic gold medal around their neck was a new experience.
“You get chills over your body, man,” said DeMarcus Cousins, who had 13 points and 15 rebounds. “You see some of these athletes, you see their gold medals, for you to actually be on this stage and receive a gold medal, it’s an incredible feeling.”
Carmelo Anthony, who scored seven points, won his fourth Olympic medal, and a record third straight gold for a male basketball player after starting his Olympic career 12 years ago with a bronze. Anthony also pulled down seven rebounds to become the top rebounder in Team USA history with 125. His teammates knew it was coming and went crazy when he passed David Robinson (1988, 1992, 1996) in that category.
Anthony and Durant are the top two scorers in the history of USA Basketball, and more than that, said coach Mike Krzyzewski. “To have two veterans who’ve won it before to serve as the leaders for our team is fabulous,” he said.
And now Anthony is finished. Asked if he was coming back for a record fifth Olympic Games, he jumped right in. “I’m gonna answer that ‘No!’” he said. “I think I’ve given enough to Team USA basketball. As much as I’m going to miss it, it’s time to pass it on to some of the guys on our team this year, also give the younger guys coming along the opportunity to be a part of something great.
“Its been a fun journey, it’s been a fun ride. I’ve seen the losing side and seen what it means to win three gold medals.”
There was some doubt Team USA would get to the top of the podium.
Serbia was the same squad that Krzyzewski said came “within a whisker” of beating the U.S. in pool play 94-91 on Aug. 12. In the next game, Team USA squeaked by France 100-97.
“There was a lot of buzz about us not playing well in the early rounds,” Anthony said. “The way that we locked in, focused in to have this gold medal around our necks was special. When playing around guys in big-game situations and big moments, you can trust them, you can rely on them to know that when that time comes, everybody will perform at a high level.”
Krzyzewski said Team USA just kept getting better after pool play.
“We said it was a learning experience and our guys did learn,” he said.
Meanwhile Serbia, which was making its first Olympic appearance, although Yugoslavia won the silver medal behind the U.S. at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, was 4-3 after fighting its way into the gold-medal game.
Team USA got off to a slow start Sunday, with Serbia leading 14-11 with 3:12 to go in the first quarter.
The Americans closed out the quarter with an 8-1 run, then started the second quarter with a 6-0 spurt sparked by Paul George’s steal and fast-break dunk. After DeMarcus Cousins hit four free throws, Durant went to work before a full house in the Carioca 1 Arena.
He guaranteed that Serbia, which came back from an 18-point first quarter deficit in their first meeting to challenge the U.S. at the end, couldn’t get back into the game.
Aleskandar Djordjevic, the Serbian coach who also won a silver medal as a player in 1996, said the U.S. coaching staff “knew what was coming from our guns, some of our guns were not as loaded as the first game.”
But the U.S. big gun was. Durant, who averaged 19.4 points for the tournament, was in the hunt to break Anthony’s record for scoring in a single game (37 against Nigeria in 2012). A five-foot tap-in at the end of the third quarter was ruled after the buzzer, and Durant left the court with a grin on his face. But he came out early in the fourth and joined his teammates on the bench in chatting and cheering.
Durant admitted that he shot more in the knockout round. “I wasn’t being myself,” he said of the earlier games. “And coach sat me down and showed me some film of 2010 and said, ‘I want to see that guy again.’ I just woke up, I guess. My teammates supported me, they were cheering me along the way.”
He added, “When I’m smiling, screaming and beating my chest, showing emotion,” that’s when he’s more himself.
Durant did briefly step on the court with 1:53 left to hug Anthony as he came out of the game. Anthony also hugged Krzyzewski and the other coaches.
Team USA led 90-49 with 3:23 left, but after Krzyzewski cleared his bench, Serbia closed the game on a 17-6 run.
That didn’t matter to Team USA, which was too busy celebrating. Klay Thompson added 12 points.
The game marked the end of the Coach K era with the men’s national team, with Krzyzewski stepping down as coach with an 88-1 record dating back to 2006. Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs has already been tapped to succeed Krzyzewski in 2017.
“You have the best guy in the world to coach the team now,” Krzyzewski said. “That says a lot for the program that’s been developed.”
The Duke University coach is the first U.S. men’s basketball coach to win three consecutive Olympic Games, surpassing Henry Iba, who coached the 1964 and 1968 teams to gold medals.
“I think there are more really outstanding teams in this Olympics than in ’08 and 2012,” Krzyzewski said, “and that’s why you’ve seen the quality of the games. I think it says a lot for the continuity these other federations have had. These guys have played together. Also, more and more guys are in the NBA, or have been in the NBA, so as far as competition with us, there is a familiarity of playing against NBA players because they are or have been (NBA players), so I think that’s made it much more competitive also.”
Krzyzewski credited Anthony for helping make his tenure a success, especially with 10 Olympic rookies on this team.
“He’s been such a good guy to coach and he’s accepted different roles,” Krzyzewski said. “He wasn’t always a starter, he came off the bench, and he’s such a team player.
“In London (2012 Olympics) he was our second leading scorer. But in this Olympics, he’s not only been a really good player, he’s been an outstanding leader. He’s tried to use his experience and he has instant respect with all the guys. His experience in what to say and what to do, it’s believed right away by the team and with so many new guys, 10 new Olympians, that’s helped a great deal.”