LONDON — You would think it wouldn’t be hard to get the NBA’s reigning, three-time scoring champion to shoot.
But you would be wrong, although the U.S. men’s basketball team tried to fix that in a blowout 98-71 win Sunday against France in its Olympic opener.
Kevin Durant, the scoring champ in question, has not played in an Olympics before. Like any newcomer, he wants to be liked. So time and again during the U.S. team’s brief time together this year, Durant has passed up the sort of open shots that he drills with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I told KD (Durant) to just be himself,” LeBron James said Sunday after Durant led the U.S. with 22 points and added nine rebounds in a game that was only close for one quarter. “On a team like this you can kind of shy away because there are so many great players here. But KD’s on this team for a reason. He’s one of the best players the world has and he’s a three-time scoring champ. So we don’t want the KD that defers. We want the KD that he is in Oklahoma City.”
James seemed determined to make that KD show up Sunday. He threw the ball to Durant every time he could, passing up one open shot after another to get the ball to Durant. It was a bit ironic, considering Durant and James went head-to-head in the NBA Finals this season when the Miami Heat defeated the Thunder.
James’ best pass Sunday was a spectacular 60-foot, overhead-thrown bounce pass that threaded between two defenders. It arrowed straight to Durant, who slammed home what will undoubtedly stand as one of the best plays of the Olympic tournament.
James took only six shots during the game Sunday and scored just nine points. But he had eight assists.
James said he plans to maintain this pass-first attitude throughout the Olympics, although when the game gets close, I doubt that will stick. He insists his main job on offense will be to feed Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, a trio that James called “three of the best scorers any of us has ever seen.”
When asked about the baskets’ backgrounds at the Olympic basketball arena, where there is a relatively wide gap in the end zones between the fans and the court, James said: “I don’t know; I’m not a shooter. You’ve got to ask one of the shooters. I drive and dunk the ball. (It) doesn’t bother me.”
James’ cry for Durant to put the ball up more often has been echoed around the team. When Kobe Bryant was asked what he said to Durant during the game, Bryant replied gruffly: “Shoot the … ball.”
Said Durant: “Sometimes coach was screaming at me. And Chris Paul was screaming at me more than anybody, ‘Shoot the ball!’ I guess I’ve got to be aggressive.”
France did not provide much of a game. The Americans had only a one-point lead after the first quarter but led by 16 at halftime and by 27 at the end of the third period. All 12 U.S. players scored, with Kevin Love (14 points) and Bryant (10) joining Durant in double figures. French point guard Tony Parker had 10 points but only a single assist for his team.
“The USA played a great game, especially defensively,” Parker said.
They did do well there, too, but that’s not what Durant does best. He scores. It now looks like this team will revolve around the James/Durant axis during these Olympics. And James, the team’s undisputed leader, isn’t going to let Durant fade into the background even if he wants to.
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