Kevin Durant Stars as Team USA Moves Within One Game of Gold
Playing on Sept. 11, the Americans paid homage to those who died nine years earlier. Players covered their hearts during the national anthem. Some wrote "9/11'' on their shoes.
In honor of the day, forward Kevin Durant went so far as to walk over near the stands at the Sinan Erdem Dome and offer a salute when he drilled a three-pointer in the fourth quarter of Team USA's resounding 89-74 win over Lithuania in a FIBA World Championship semifinal Saturday.
"I just want to remember everybody back in the states and everybody who was affected by 9/11,'' Durant said. "To play on this day is a great honor. We just tried to do our best to play hard for our country and our families and everybody that was lost on 9/11. It was kind of emotional to take the court on this day, and I'm glad we got the job done.''
Did Durant ever do the job. In leading the Americans into Sunday's gold-medal game against host Turkey, which came from behind to beat Serbia 83-82 later Saturday, he broke a number of Team U.S. Worlds scoring records.
Durant's 38 points topped the mark of 35 Carmelo Anthony set in 2006. In shooting 14-of-25, he set records for field goals attempted and made in a game. And the Oklahoma City star, averaging 22.1 points in the tournament, needs just six points Sunday to break Luther Burden's 1974 mark of 20.2 for highest ever by an American in the Worlds. The Olympic U.S. mark is 19.3 by Adrian Dantley in 1976. So this looks to be the greatest scoring display an American has put on in a major international competition.
"Kevin Durant, it was beautiful,'' said Team USA forward Andre Iguodala. "It was fun to watch just being out there.''
Meanwhile, Iguodala wasn't too bad to watch either. He played stifling defense on Lithuania forward Linas Kleiza, holding the Toronto Raptors forward to four points on 1-of-11 shooting after he had entered the game with a 19.1 tournament average.
"The coaches pretty much send me out there to slow down the No. 1 on the team as far as a scorer,'' said Iguodala, of the Philadelphia 76ers. "It's the same way in the NBA. It's hard to stop anybody. I just try to slow guys down. There's no such thing as stopping them.''
With all due respect to Iguodala, he stopped Kleiza. Meanwhile, nobody could even come close to slowing Durant.
Durant scored 17 points in the first quarter as Team USA took a 23-12 lead. He had 24 at halftime, when the Americans had a quite safe 42-27 lead.
"We couldn't find a solution on their star, Kevin Durant,'' said Lithuania coach Kestutis Kemzura. "He was unstoppable.''
As usual, Durant simply shrugged when asked about his performance. He had scored 33 points in Thursday's quarterfinal win over Russia, giving him an average of 35.5 in his past two games.
"It really doesn't mean too much,'' Durant said after the game about whether his scoring outburst had hit him yet. "I just wanted to move on (in the Worlds), and the only thing that will hit me is if we come back with the gold.''
But all of those points meant plenty to Durant's teammates. Team USA coach Mike Kryzewski said other Team USA players were "telling him, 'keep shooting, keep shooting.'''
Durant did just that. He had a wide-open jumper in the waning moments for a chance to reach 40 but it just missed. Then he left to a nice ovation with 44 seconds left.
"Flat out,'' Team USA big man Kevin Love said of it being the best international scoring effort he knows about. "(Durant) was unbelievable ... He's 21 years old. People are going to be seeing a lot of him in the future. There's nothing to do to stop him. He's really 6-11 (despite being listed at 6-foot-9).''
Another one of the few really tall guys on the team had a nice outing. Lamar Odom, the 6-10 starting center, had 13 points, 10 rebounds and three rebounds in his best outing of the tournament.
Odom called it emotional playing on Sept. 11. He is a native of New York, which suffered the brunt of the 2001 tragedy when two planes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center.
"Incredible moment for all of us,'' Odom said of wearing the red, white and blue Saturday. "I lost friends in 9/11, people I went to high school with. It's always a special day, playing representing your country.''
Iguodala said the players talked about the meaning of playing on the day Friday and before Saturday's game. The players decided to put their hands over their hearts during the anthem, which they hadn't done in previous tournament games.
"We wanted to come out and play with some pride,'' Iguodala said. "This is a significant day.''
It was easily the best game of the tournament against a Lithuania team that has advanced to five straight Olympic semifinals although this is its first Worlds semifinal. The Americans held normally hot-shooting Lithuania to just 3-of-12 three-point marksmanship in the first half (it finished 11-of-28, with many coming after the game no longer was in doubt) and didn't let Lithuania get as physical as it players like.
Next up for the Americans is a chance to win their first Worlds gold medal since 1994. That truly would be red, white and beautiful.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson