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Tatum, Durant Push Team USA Past Czech Republic

Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant were the key catalysts, but Damian Lillard brought the intangibles for Team USA’s crucial win over Czech Republic.

2020 Tokyo Olympics: USA v Czech Republic Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

To clinch a spot in the Olympic quarterfinals, Team USA needed to first win a group stage match against Czech Republic. It certainly helped that they had a player with proven success in play-in situations. Damian Lillard wasn’t the force that he normally is offensively, but he made up for it with a strong defensive performance. That, paired with Jayson Tatum’s 27 points, Kevin Durant’s historic 23-point performance, and an abundance of depth proved to be enough to push Team USA in the Group A finale with a 119-84 win.

This morning’s triumph provides Team USA with a chance to clinch a top-four seed, which could assist them in avoiding some of the teams they’ve struggled against (France or Australia). Team USA won’t have a chance to catch France (3-0), Group A’s top seed, and they can’t surpass Group B or C’s top-seed team either. But a chance at a slightly-softened schedule is within reach. That in mind, here are the major takeaways.

Lillard Watch

For NBA fans, Chicago Bulls guard Tomáš Satoranský was the most recognizable face and name, so, Gregg Popovich predictably elected to have Damian Lillard guard either Blake Schilb, whom they maybe thought wasn’t going to turn into Klay Thompson at 5 a.m., or Jaromír Bohačík, tasking Jrue Holiday with the tougher assignment. That approach was everything but correct. Lillard often wasn’t the player being scored on, but process of elimination with the box score would lead one to believe so.

Lillard actually had some strong defensive possessions. He forced a turnover, using an aggressive deflection, and held his own when tested on a switch in the post, where Czech Republic creates several opportunities. On offense, he was used solely as a 3-point shooter. Since consequential play began, 22 of his 25 shots have been 3-pointers, and this morning was no different. He hit on 3-of-10 from the field, with eight of those attempts coming from deep.

It was slightly worrisome that Team USA, namely Kevin Durant, went on the game-changing second quarter tear with Lillard sitting. But, those wheels kept rolling even when Lillard returned. In this game, the Blazers star provided the intangible factor. Speaking of Durant.

KD’S Historic Day

The Carmelo Anthony apologist in me couldn’t help but smile while watching Kevin Durant use his 7-foot-5 wingspan to pluck away Olympic records one after another from the decorated Blazers forward. He entered Saturday morning just six points shy of Anthony for the No. 1 spot on Team USA’s leaderboard. Durant did far more than just surpass Melo’s previous mark in this matchup.

By game’s end, Durant poured in 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists on 11 shots from the field. He also snagged the record for most free throws and field goals made. Both marks previously held by Melo.

For all other Team USA supporters, it was smooth sailing. Team USA trailed 25-18 heading into the second quarter, but went on a 21-8 run to begin the frame, largely due to Durant. His presence magnetized Czech Republic’s defense, freeing up scoring opportunities for the likes of Jrue Holiday, Zach LaVine, and Draymond Green. Even within that, Durant continued to score.

Czech Republic’s 15-Minute Scare

Despite bringing along some of the NBA’s best talent, history told us that this matchup with Czech Republic was far from a cake walk. As Bob Fitzgerald and Kevin Durant noted, prior to today, Czech Republic just defeated a Canada squad.

It certainly appeared Team USA would be on upset watch for a time. Czech Republic opened up a 9-2 lead, and were at one point, so comfortable that they threw in a 2-3 zone to change the pace. Between Jan Vesely’s push floaters, Schilb’s brilliant first quarter, and all of the offense that they generated out of horn sets and the mid-post, they provided quite the scare.

The final score shows a 35-point win for Team USA, but it certainly took some resilience to get there. The arrivals of Devin Booker, and in particular Jrue Holiday, can’t be understated. Across the board, Team USA won with championship pedigree and mental toughness.

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Box Score

Team USA now moves on from the group stage to the knockout round.