Kevin Durant missed the 2019–20 NBA season recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. While his return was one of the most productive ever enjoyed by a player sustaining that injury, he missed more than half the 2020–21 regular season with hamstring and thigh issues. But he never considered not suiting up for USA Basketball for the pandemic-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Among his many reasons? A desire to honor the memory of the late Kobe Bryant.
The Tokyo Games will be Durant’s third Olympics, and he will be seeking a third gold medal to put with those he won in London and Rio de Janeiro in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Durant also heads to Tokyo just 25 points away from Carmelo Anthony’s all-time U.S. Olympic scoring mark. However, the trip to Tokyo got off to a rocky start with an exhibition loss to an unlikely opponent.
Kevin Durant and Team USA stunned in Las Vegas during an Olympic warm-up
USA Basketball had won 39 consecutive games over its previous three Olympic runs, including exhibition play before the Games. Included in that streak were two victories over Nigeria. In London during the 2012 Olympics, Team USA demolished the Nigerians, 156–63. The game set Olympic records for both points scored and margin of victory (83 points).
During the pre-Olympic run in 2016, the U.S. completed its exhibition schedule before Rio with a 110–66 beatdown in Houston.
But on July 10 in Las Vegas, Nigeria scored a historic victory, clipping the star-studded USA Basketball squad 90–87. It was the first victory by any African national team over Team USA and was just the third exhibition loss for the U.S. since NBA players were made eligible for the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
Nigeria outshot the U.S., particularly from long range. They hit 20-of-42 (47.6%) from deep compared to 10-of-24 (41.7) for Team USA. Overall, Nigeria shot 43.8% (32-of-73) to the Americans’ 41.3% (26-of-63). USA Basketball kept the game close at the foul line, where they were 25-of-32 compared to just 6-of-10 for Nigeria.
Durant scored 17 points to lead the U.S. Gabe Vincent, a deep-rotation reserve for the Miami Heat, scored a game-high 21 points for the Nigerians.
Durant and the need to memorialize Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant was a decorated USA Basketball veteran in his own right. He played for two Olympic gold-medal winners, in Beijing in 2008 as part of the famed “Redeem Team” and London in 2012, where he was teammates with Kevin Durant. Bryant also helped the U.S. grab gold at the 2007 Tournament of the Americas.
Durant explained to the New York Post that his reasons to play in Tokyo were many, but that memorializing Bryant — killed in a helicopter crash in January 2020 — was one of the reasons.
“It’s gonna be important for a multitude of reasons, and that’s definitely one of those. We got so many ‘Kobe disciples’ in here who learned from him for so long, had relationships with him. You want to go out there and want to win the gold just like he did. So looking forward to it.
“Guys that had close relationships will understand how he’d approach every single day, especially with Team USA. He really took pride in being a part of this group and a part of his team. We all feed off that type of energy, and Kobe always brought that. So, he’s always big to every one of us here. We miss him, we miss him dearly, because he would be here supporting us.”Kevin Durant
Durant wants his third gold medal, to be sure. For Team USA coach Gregg Popovich, the motivation to do well doesn’t stem from an Olympic failure. Instead, his first go-around as the program’s head coach following Mike Krzyzewski’s decision to step down went poorly.
Kevin Durant and other stars look to rebound from 2019 FIBA World Cup disaster for Team USA
In 2019, venerated San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich got his first opportunity to lead USA Basketball into a major international competition. But the squad he took to the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China was noticeably short on star power.
While the U.S. made it through the two preliminary rounds with a 6–0 record, things went pear-shaped in the medal round. France dropped the U.S. out of medal contention with an 89–79 win in the quarterfinals, and Serbia added salt to the wound with a 94–89 win in the consolation-round semifinal. USA Basketball salvaged a seventh-place finish by beating Poland.
With players such as Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Bradley Beal, the U.S. has the star power. But a loss to Nigeria is still a poor way to start the process.