Team USA survived a late rally from a resilient France team, plus a few missed free throws of their own to win the final, 87-82. The win in Tokyo makes it four-straight Olympic gold medals since their infamous bronze finish at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Kevin Durant led the way once again for Team USA, scoring 21 of his 29 points in the first half, while Jayson Tatum added 19 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday struggled from the field and finished with just 11 points apiece, though they played a crucial role in staving off France’s repeated attempts at a fourth quarter comeback.
Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier came out aggressive in the first half and finished with 16 points each for France. Guerschon Yabusele hit three crucial three-pointers that kept them competitive amidst the USA run in the third quarter and finished with 13 points.
Meanwhile, Nando De Colo, who played two seasons in the NBA under team USA head coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, attempted just four field goals, but was a steadying force for France throughout the game. He eventually tallied 12 points, seven assists, and a steal.
In what has become typical for the Americans in these Olympics, they started the game slow. They fell behind by six points in the early goings of the first quarter after a strong start from France, prompting a timeout from Popovich.
They came out of the huddle refocused and tied the game at 15 before ending the opening period with a four-point lead, 22-18. The USA would not relinquish that lead, taking a five-point advantage into halftime and leading by as much as 14 points, 71-57, with less than two minutes left in the third quarter. Just like in their semifinal match versus Australia, it looked like the Americans were poised to blow the game out, but Les Beus were resilient.
A three-pointer from Nicolas Batum brought the USA lead down to eight points at the end of the third period. Come the fourth quarter, the energy of their defensive-minded reserves Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Frank Ntilikina, both NBA veterans, pulled them within three points, 73-70, with 5:44 remaining in the gold medal match.
France had momentum on their side and things were starting to look familiar. In their previous meeting two weeks ago in the Olympic opener, Team USA led by six points midway through the fourth quarter before France turned up its defense and rallied to take a seven-point win.
This time around, the USA were not going to fall into the same trap and they turned to their starting guards Lillard and Holiday. Lillard hit a tough midrange jumper on the next possession then Holiday followed it up with a steal and an open fastbreak dunk. The 28-year-old Fournier missed a contested three pointer for France on the other end and Holiday then found Lillard for another long two-pointer. In a span of a minute, they extended their lead from three points to nine, 79-70.
However, France refused to back down and after Fournier hit another three with a little over a minute left to play, they trailed by just six points. In the final minute, the USA missed three of four free throw attempts, with Lillard uncharacteristically missing two straight, and Holiday committed a costly turnover which allowed Les Bleus to pull within three points after De Colo’s two free throws with 10 seconds to play.
Team USA called a timeout and successfully inbounded the ball on the next possession to Durant who was then intentionally fouled by Gobert. Durant calmly sank both free throws, his only points of the fourth quarter, to seal his third consecutive Olympic gold medal and the Americans’ fourth in a row dating back to the 2008 tournament in Beijing, China.
In terms of basketball knowledge and tactics, the rest of the world has caught up to the Americans, which explains why the road to this year’s gold medal has been tougher than ever, beginning with their disappointing exhibition game losses. However, the majority of the best players in the world still hail from the States. In the end, there was simply no way for any Team USA’s opponents to make up for the overwhelming gulf in talent. When you factor in the fact that the Americans had 10 first-time Olympians on the squad, it’s clear that they’ll never be short on talent.
As of now, the Americans can still say that they are the best in the world and they have Durant and company to thank for that. Come the 2024 Olympics, which this France team will host, the road to the gold medal will only become more grueling.
Credit goes to Spain, Australia, and France for trying their hardest, and giving Team USA a few scares along the way, but it simply wasn’t meant to be for anyone else this year.
One thing is for certain. No one can say that the Olympic men’s basketball tournament wasn’t a well-contested affair.