They gave Americans a good scare, having to eke out three wins in the preliminary round against teams that, on paper at least, are inferior. They’ll never be beloved, like the 1992 Dream Team of Magic, Michael, and Larry. Or even the 2008 Redeem Team–with Kobe and LeBron–from Beijing, which brought the basketball gold medal back home after the 2004 debacle in Athens, where Team USA lost three games and finished with a bronze. With so many of the game’s top players, like LeBron, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, staying home, the 2016 men’s Olympic basketball team, stocked with All-Stars as it is, wasn’t bound to stand out in the history books.
All it did was take care of business. Team USA overwhelmed Serbia, 96-66, on Sunday at Carioca Arena 1 in Rio, to win a third straight Olympic gold medal. Serbia led for most the first quarter, before the U.S. locked down on defense, forcing several desperate three-pointers and taking a 19-15 advantage. Kevin Durant then took over in the second quarter, at one point hitting two straight threes, then stealing the ball and flushing down a fast break dunk, within a minute. Durant finished the second quarter alone with 18 points, and the U.S. held a comfortable 52-29 lead at halftime.
It might as well have been game over––the second half felt like a formality. Once the knockout round hit, Durant honed in. He finished the gold medal game with 30 points, on 10-19 shooting, including 5-11 from three-point range. Carmelo Anthony, who’s emerged as a wise elder statesman at these Olympics–and consistently made the kind of crucial shots he too often misses with the New York Knicks—became the first men’s player to ever win three gold medals.
The Rio Olympics also marks the end of Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure as Olympic coach. He finished undefeated, 24-0, across the last three Games. Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs, takes over for Tokyo in 2020. After Athens, USA Basketball dropped its slapdash method of assembling Olympic teams, and canvassed for players who’d stick around for multiple Olympics and world championships. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo tapped Krzyzewski to restore order, and Coach K walks away having led the Americans to three gold medals. The final gold adds polish to what’s already one of the most impressive resumes in hoops history (Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in Division 1 men’s history, with 1,043 victories, and has five national titles at Duke).
Colangelo’s fond of touting the “program” he’s built with national team, causing an occasional eye roll. After all, any team with Durant and Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson should win. But the systematic approach has worked. NBA teams have had at least 100 foreign players on their rosters the last two seasons; a record 15 international players were selected in the first round of this year’s NBA draft. That’s half the field.
The world has caught up to the Americans in basketball. Gold medals no longer come easy. The 2016 men’s Olympic team always played hard, and stepped up when it counted most. These players won’t be lionized. But as the team that delivered America the last gold of these Olympic games – the U.S. left Rio with an impressive 46 — they deserve plenty of respect.