KD powers U.S. past Rubio, Spain and into semis

  • ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
  • Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
  • Author of two books

SAITAMA, Japan — Kevin Durant’s case as the greatest Olympic basketball player ever is growing by the game. Team USA is badly in need of the chase.

For the third straight Summer Olympics, Durant has been an offensive powerhouse as he has overwhelmed the challenges of the international game with his spectacular shooting skill. He was unstoppable in London, was unconscious in Rio and has been the lifeblood of a flawed Team USA in Tokyo.

Durant’s shooting rescued the Americans again Tuesday as they overcame a 10-point deficit to beat Spain 95-81 and advance to the semifinals of the Olympic men’s basketball tournament, in which they will play either Australia or Argentina on Thursday.

He scored 29 points — 13 of those coming in the game-changing third quarter — to help his team overcome yet another sluggish start.

It has become apparent that this version of Team USA has weaknesses that are glaring — particularly its lack of size and penchant to rely on the 3-point shot that makes it vulnerable to slumps in a 40-minute game. Then again, the Americans also have their strengths — and they, too, are glaring — which would be their quickness and ability to smother opponents when those 3s start to fall.

Durant’s abilities are the epitome of the strategy, as he made three triples in the third quarter while the Americans stuck with their improving ball movement that repeatedly was able to deliver their star open looks.

The Spanish have to be absolutely sick of Durant at this point after he dropped 30 on them in the gold-medal game in London in 2012, and then had 14 points and eight rebounds in their semifinal matchup in 2016.

And Ricky Rubio has to be personally tired of everything red, white and blue. This loss marked the fourth straight Olympics he had to swallow a defeat against Team USA, dating to the 2008 gold-medal game in Beijing.

Rubio played like he knew this might be his last chance against the Americans, displaying relentless aggression right out of the gate. He attacked and probed for shots all game, even against the stout defense of Jrue Holiday, and repeatedly got free to finish in the lane.

It was a masterful performance — he finished with 38 points on 13-of-20 shooting.

The Americans went just 4-of-17 on 3-pointers in the first half while Spain pounded the ball inside, which is standard for opponents now. It led to a cushion for Spain, but it never felt like it would last.

Team USA, led by more aggressive defense, finished the first half on a 14-4 run and then opened the second half 15-4 behind Durant to create separation.

Jayson Tatum, who is developing into a weapon as a scorer off the bench, put in 13 points and scored several key hoops in the fourth to keep the lead safe.

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