Jayson Tatum sat on the bench and watched as Tomas Satoranksy sent an errant Devin Booker pass into the back court for a breakout Czech Republic bucket through a Booker foul. Czech’s Blake Schilb drained a pair of early jumpers, before another pair of threes later in the half, that sent Team USA into timeout down 9-2. Damian Lillard bricks piled up, Booker sent to various locations that rarely were his teammates’ hands. The potential of sweating out an at-large bid for the Olympic quarterfinals after a 1-2 group play run had risen early Saturday morning in the US, but they’re on to the knockout stage, 119-84.
Kevin Durant averted crisis before most of America woke up, settling Team USA down with a trio of threes while they trailed for much of the first half. Durant broke Carmelo Anthony’s US Olympic scoring record midway through the game and handed the baton to Tatum off the bench for a flame-throwing 24 minutes of scoring that send the Czechs packing, before anointing Tatum next up — again. Tatum’s 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, most of his work done in the third quarter, reached within three points of tying the third-highest Team USA total in a single game.
“This guy to the left is going to be the next guy to break the record,” Durant said post-game.
Tatum’s chase of 339 will be a long one, Tatum contended, after KD continues to build on it for the length of this tournament. His first two games marked a modest start, 23 points, moved to the bench by Gregg Popovich after Khris Middleton and Booker arrived from the NBA Finals. Durant scored 35 between his first two 2012 Olympic games. Through three, Tatum now has Durant beat by one point.
He initially found difficulty in the physicality, lack of rhythm and a return to an off-ball role on this all-star team. Tatum only added six points in the first half of the win over the Czech Republic.
“New environment, new basketball, different style of basketball, the rules are different,” he said. “Playing on a new team. It’s a lot of things. I was never worried, never concerned. I knew the shots would fall eventually.”
Czech’s Martin Peterka tried to sneak by Tatum shortly following his insertion to the game, protecting his reverse layup with the rim to a point Tatum still reached from behind to erase the shot. Durant stood inside as a deterrent against post-ups and Bam Adebayo flipped in a pair of layups around the rim in a one-possession game to secure a lead USA wouldn’t sacrifice for the rest of the game.
The US team misses three things compared to the rest of the world. Their rebounding personnel lacks, their emphasis on an interior presence wanes relative to the field and the isolation volume in the half court exceeds the movement necessary to clear teams packing the paint. We know the free throw story — Zach LaVine showed it on an early leaning three into a Czech defender that went uncalled. He appealed all the way up the floor and the official acted like he had ear plugs in.
The USA won’t rebound like the bigger teams they’ll face. They’ll shoot, and shoot, and shoot in isolation. With two straight games above 40% from three it’ll be hard for them to lose securing three-point volume with the quality looks the generate.
They can make it easier on themselves though. The first quarter looked like a struggle, with USA heaves occasionally looking like shot puts. Tatum and USA’s benefited from the pace Durant generated later. He increased his work on the boards, securing possessions and running as it appears his urgency ticks upward into real games.
USA’s shot total — considering pace and ball control — ticked up from 69 to 73 to 76 across the group stage. The win over the Czechs, close for a half, surpassing a wall-to-wall blowout over Iran signaled a definitive push up the floor so defenses can’t set, deflect shots off the rims or get physical. At one point Durant shook off a hip check in transition that could’ve potentially drawn FIBA’s answer to the flagrant foul.
The Czech Republic attempted 13 free throws to USA’s 12. They won possessions, answered shots and finished 50% from the floor. Tatum’s overwhelming second half efficiency just devastated them. He worked inside-out, worked some pick-and-roll sets with Adebayo to free himself and others up, sets we haven’t seen many of. On one quality play, he saw the value of attacking on the second level, rather than meeting the defense head-on.
“It takes some pressure off, just knowing there’s guys to your left and right that are capable of doing things like that,” Tatum said. “We all knew when we signed up to come together that it wasn’t going to be our normal roles on our teams, but with the mindset of all that matters is that we come together and win a gold medal. It’s not going to matter how many points you score, how many shots you got. You came together in this short period of time, you sacrificed time from your family and your summer to accomplish something special.”
Team USA moves on to the knockout stage, where they’ll begin against some other than than their fellow group winner France. It could be among Italy, Spain, Slovenia or Australia, along with a pair of wild cards that could include the Czech Republic. They’ve lost to two of the six teams moving on already, with Booker and Middleton just days into camp.
The group still lacks certain connecting factors that would truly solidify them as runaway favorites. For now, Durant and Tatum’s ability to dominate in the flow of the action appears enough to reach winning time in the final minutes of these games, or pull away late. For Tatum individually, he’s returning to the time where his passing, defense and movement will determine his scoring and on Saturday he scored as efficiently as anyone in US Olympic history.
“I think that taking time out of your summer to come play on the team with some of the best players in the world, practice with them every day, competing on the floor can only make you better,” Tatum said. “When you surround yourself with great players, it only elevates you.”