USA men’s basketball advances to gold medal game of Tokyo

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TOKYO — Were you worried about the U.S. men’s basketball team? There was certainly reason to be for a moment against Australia in the semifinals Thursday at Saitama Super Arena. But with this much talent, it only takes a few minutes of good basketball for concern to turn into jubilation.

Team USA will play for its fourth straight gold medal on Saturday thanks to a 97-78 win over the Australians in a game in which the final score does not indicate how badly the Americans were outplayed early on.

But much like their quarterfinal against Spain, where the U.S. trailed by double digits before going on a run to tie it at halftime, the Americans tightened up their defense at just the right time. After closing the final 3½ minutes of the second quarter on an 11-1 run to close the gap to 45-42, they went into full flight in the third quarter and put away the Australians rather easily with a series of stops and a barrage of 3-pointers.

Zach Lavine dunks the ball as Matisse Thybulle pursues during the United States

“They sliced us and diced us, and we’d looked like we never played together before at the defensive end of the court,” Team USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “We’ve had to try to figure out on the fly here how to do it, and the last five minutes of the second quarter and the third quarter we were very aggressive, we pressured well, and we understood that’s what it was going to take to beat a fine team like that. It fueled our offense and we got it going pretty good.”

How good? After missing their first 10 shots from long-range, the U.S. made nine of its next 17 threes. And the Australians, whose ball movement and patience to get good shots early on staked them to a 15-point lead, suddenly disintegrated as the U.S. turned up the pressure.

From the end of the second quarter to the first stages of third, the U.S. went on a 20-0 run and held Australia without a basket for a span of 7:50. The U.S. outscored Australia 32-10 in the third quarter to take a 74-55 lead into the fourth.

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Australia coach Brian Goorjian said his team went through the right process on offense to try to exploit the Americans’ switching defense, but once those mismatches dried up in the second half, they struggled to get many clean looks. Australia shot just 41% from the field for the game, including 14-for-35 from inside the 3-point line, and the U.S. was able to turn a lot of those misses into easy offense going the other way in transition.

“As the game went on and they kept rotating bodies and rotating bodies it got harder and harder,” Goorjian said. “I love the way we played. I thought we did it right. The problem was trying to do that for 40 minutes against a team like this.”

As usual, Kevin Durant was the engine for Team USA. When the Americans were struggling early, Durant found ways to make tough baskets to keep them within range and finished with 23 points and nine rebounds on 10-of-19 shooting.

Jrue Holiday was also a force on both ends of the floor, as he has been throughout the tournament, with 11 points and eight assists. Holiday also did a good job defending Patty Mills, who was held to 15 points after slicing up the Americans during Australia’s 91-83 exhibition victory back on July 12.

But once the threes started falling from everyone, including Devin Booker (20 points) and Jayson Tatum (3-of-6 from three), it showed how devastating the Americans can be.

“We knew teams were going to come out fast and hit us with a nice punch and see how we respond,” Durant said. “I think a lot of teams are expecting us to fold early so we stuck with it, stuck with our principles, made a couple scheme switches and we were able to get some momentum going into the half and guys came out with that intensity. We made shots as well, so everything fell in line for us in that second half. That’s who we are.”

The U.S. will play the winner of Slovenia-France in the gold medal round.

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