SAITAMA (AFP) – NBA All-Star Kevin Durant poured in a game-high 29 points to lead the United States past France, 87-82, to win their fourth straight Olympic men’s basketball gold medal Saturday.
The Americans started slow but earned a 22-18 lead after the first quarter and were 44-39 ahead at halfway, then survived some nervous late moments to prove the doubters wrong.
Gregg Popovich’s men headed to Tokyo after defeats to Nigeria and Australia in lead-up exhibition matches, sparking questions around their global dominance.
They then crashed to seventh-ranked France in their opening group game, their first defeat at an Olympics since the 2004 in Athens.
But spearheaded by Durant, they steadied the ship and began gelling, with a French team led by NBA stars Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum unable to repeat the feat in the final.
The Brooklyn Nets’ Durant was once again the US backbone as he joined Carmelo Anthony as a three-time title-winner, after being part of the triumphant teams in 2012 and 2016.
He had already reinforced his stature by surpassing his fellow great during group play to become their all-time leading Olympic points-scorer.
Durant scored 30 points in each of his last two gold medal games, and while he didn’t quite match that on Saturday, he again proved how crucial he is in pacing their offense.
He ended with three assists and six rebounds while Boston Celtic guard Jayson Tatum had 19 points and seven rebounds.
Utah Jazz centre Gobert and the Celtics’ Fournier both sank 16 points to lead the way for France.
It was the eighth meeting between the two teams at an Olympics and their third final after London in 1948 and at Sydney 2000, with the US winning on both occasions.
In fact, France’s win in the group stage was their only Olympic victory against Team USA.
France led 10-4 with five minutes left of the first quarter with the Americans shooting just 2-of-11 from the floor, including 0-of-8 from outside the arc, before they finally found some rhythm and clicked into gear.
Khris Middleton drained a crucial three-pointer to draw them level and three successful free throws from Durant gave them the lead for the first time as they ended the quarter with a 22-18 advantage.
Durant contributed 21 points in the first half which ended with the US 44-39 ahead, but France did well to rally after falling 13 points adrift at one stage with Gobert instrumental with his 13 points.
They closed to within two points early in the third quarter but whenever they tried to make something happen offensively, Durant or Jrue Holiday hit back straight away.
The US went into the final stretch 71-63 in front and hung on as France threw everything they had at them.