Column: Kevin Durant proves he’s the greatest U.S. men’s basketball Olympian of all time

U.S. men's basketball forward Kevin Durant celebrates after winning an Olympic gold medal.
U.S. men’s basketball forward Kevin Durant celebrates after winning an Olympic gold medal against France on Saturday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Draymond Green is a world-class defender and part-time distributor, an occasional philosopher and full-time instigator.

The versatile forward played another role Saturday: Historian.

“Been a lot of great players to don this jersey,” Green said. “He’s No. 1.”


Green was talking about Kevin Durant, who spared the U.S. its most humiliating defeat in any sport at these Olympics on Saturday by scoring 29 points in an 87-82 victory over France in the gold medal game.

Did Green’s appraisal of Durant sound hyperbolic?

It wasn’t.

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Durant is the best to ever do this, better than Bill Russell or Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

He’s the greatest Olympic men’s basketball player of all time.

He’s won three gold medals, matching Carmelo Anthony for the most ever. With 420 points in 22 games, he’s the U.S.’s all-time leading scorer at the Olympics.

There’s also his performance at these Games.

Since the U.S. started using NBA players at the Olympics, never has an American team been as dependent on one player as Gregg Popovich’s team was on Durant.


Jordan had Charles Barkley.

Kobe Bryant had James.

Kevin Durant celebrates while draped in the U.S. flag after Saturday's gold-medal win.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Durant had a version of Damian Lillard who made only 38% of his shots.

So, when Durant was limited to 20 minutes in the tournament opener by foul trouble and scored only 10 points, the U.S. lost to France.

A players-only meeting was called after the game.

“We were kind of at the bottom,” Durant said. “We worked our way up from there. Everybody just committed to doing what’s best for the group, no matter what.”

In the case of Durant, that meant taking over offensively.

Which he did. He scored 23 points in the final group-stage game, a win over the Czech Republic. He dropped 29 in the quarterfinals against Spain and 23 in the semifinals against Australia.

“It’s hard not to watch him,” Lillard said. “When you’re on the floor with him, it’s hard not to. Pop is like, ‘When KD is iso’ing, don’t stand around, cut, move.’ But when you see some of the stuff that he’s doing out there, it’s hard not to, like, literally watch it, you know?”

That was again the case in the rematch against France in the gold-medal game. The U.S. was behind early after making only two of its 11 shots.

Durant started demanding the ball.

Kevin Durant celebrates a three-pointer against France in the gold-medal game.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He had a dozen points by the end of the first quarter and 21 by halftime, at which point the Americans were ahead, 44-39.

The difficulty of stopping Durant was illustrated on a play about midway through the third quarter. Bam Adebayo set a screen on Nicolas Batum, freeing Durant to dribble to his right. France center Rudy Gobert came out to challenge his shot but was too late.

“At 7 feet tall, what he’s doing?” Green said. “I mean, he’s two inches shorter than Rudy Gobert, doing what he’s doing. That’s a special, special man.”

Durant’s three-pointer extended the U.S. lead to 11, at 56-45. The Americans led by as many as 14.

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France came back late in the fourth quarter, but the U.S. advantage never disappeared entirely, with Durant sinking a couple of free throws in the final eight seconds to seal the victory.

Walking with Green to the postgame news conference, Durant went live on his Instagram account.

“They had some power rankings out,” Durant said. “They had us fourth, behind Slovenia.”

“Like this isn’t our game,” Green interjected.

“Come on, man,” Durant continued. “Talking about [how] they’re catching up to us. Like, are you serious?

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“This skill is unmatched.”

His performance was like those in his two previous gold-medal games, as he scored 30 points against Serbia in the finals of the 2016 Rio Games and also against Spain in the championship game of the 2012 London Games.

“He’s been special,” Green said. “When a guy comes out and he’s been playing great and doing something, [or] maybe even [soils] the bed, we always say, ‘You are exactly who we thought you were.’ Kevin Durant is exactly who we thought he was, one of the greatest players to ever play this game.”

Or, in the Olympics, not one of the greatest, but the greatest.