LONDON – Kevin Durant fell short trying to win his first NBA championship this summer. He looks determined to make up for it with his first Olympic gold medal.
Durant delivered 22 points and nine rebounds in his Olympic debut as Team USA crushed France 98-71 to open the London Games with a dominating performance that had First Lady Michelle Obama on her feet and cheering.
Durant led the U.S. to the gold medal at the 2010 world championships, and quickly took center stage from LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in his first Olympic game. He drove through the middle of the lane early in the first quarter and threw down a vicious dunk that brought a smile from the First Lady. Moments later, James threaded a stunning cross-court bounce pass to Durant for another dunk.
Bryant had only five words of advice for Durant before his first Olympic game: "Just shoot the damn ball."
Durant did that, make six of his 13 shots, including three of his five 3-pointers as he rose up over France's defense. For much of the game, the ball moved freely and easily for the Americans, who had 27 assists on their 31 baskets.
"It's exciting, man," Durant said. "These are my first Olympic Games, and this is all about playing together."
Only a few teams are expected to come close to challenging the Americans in these Games, and France isn't among them. Led by San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, the French have a handful of NBA players on their roster, but they haven't had much time to practice together. Parker was sidelined until recently after sustaining a serious eye injury when he was hit by broken glass in a New York club fight between entourage members of Drake and Chris Brown. He has to wear goggles in these Olympics and wasn't much of a factor against Team USA, scoring 10 points.
France stayed close for the opening quarter, pulling within one on a 3-pointer by Yannick Bokolo in the closing seconds of the period. France's small group of fans roared in delight, but that was about the end of their fun for the afternoon. Durant and Bryant buried a pair of 3-pointers early in the second quarter and the rout was on.
"It can't get tougher than that really," said French forward Nicolas Batum.
U.S. Mike Krzyzewski substituted liberally, shuttling many of his stars in and out of the game in short three-minute bursts. For all of the American's talent, their depth is just as strong an advantage in these Olympics. Kevin Love added 14 points and Bryant added 10. James had an efficient all-around performance with nine points, eight assists and five rebounds in 25 minutes. Team USA's next group game is Tuesday against Tunisia.
"It was a good first step for us," Krzyzewski said.
Durant has become one of the NBA's biggest stars, and he credits some of his growth to his international experience when he was tasked with leading the U.S. at the world championships two years ago. He's won three consecutive NBA scoring titles and looked poised to take his first NBA title after the Oklahoma City Thunder won the opening game of this summer's Finals. James and the Miami Heat, however, quickly quashed those dreams, overpowering OKC over the next four games.
Durant admitted he still has a hard time stomaching that loss. These Olympics offer him some measure of redemption – and perhaps his first and only chance at a gold medal. If NBA owners push through with their plans to turn the Olympics into an under-23 tournament, Durant won't get the chance to play in another Games.
For now, though, Durant looks intent on making sure the world sees a lot of him over the next two weeks.