Kevin Durant is unlike most of America’s biggest basketball stars. He couldn’t wait to wear the red, white and blue this summer.
Especially on Sept. 11.
With a special memorial message on his sneakers, Durant carried the United States into the gold-medal game at the world championship, scoring a U.S.-record 38 points Saturday in an 89-74 victory over Lithuania.
”I just wanted to remember everybody back in the States, everybody that was affected by 9/11,” Durant said. ”And to play on this day was a great honor and we just tried to do our best to play hard for our country and our families.”
Durant soared over defenders or stepped away from them for 3-pointers, scoring 17 in the first quarter to stake the Americans to an early lead that was never seriously challenged.
He went on to surpass Carmelo Anthony’s single-game record of 35 points and raise his average in the tournament to 22.1, which would be the best ever by a U.S. player.
”I’ve seen him score 45, 35, back-to-back,” guard and NBA teammate Russell Westbrook said. ”It doesn’t surprise me at all what he’s been doing.”
More importantly, Durant guaranteed the Americans a chance at their first world title since 1994. They will play Turkey or Serbia on Sunday.
”That’s what we came here to do,” guard Eric Gordon said. ”We’re a young team and we fight through a lot of adversity and that’s what we’re here for, to win the gold.”
There was some doubt this team was the one that could end the U.S. drought after all the superstars from the 2008 Olympic gold medalists declined to play this summer. But Durant kept saying yes, and he’s on the verge of going down as the most accomplished U.S. player ever in this event.
Durant posted a message on his Twitter page Saturday that read: ”May God bless those who were effected by the events on Sept 11, 2001….9-11-01 on my shoes tonight..you guys will watch over us..”
Then he went out and dominated the first quarter, shooting at the basket in front of section 324, which was completely awash in Lithuania green and filled with fans banging drums and waving flags.
Lamar Odom added 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Andre Iguodala led the defensive effort that took Lithuania star Linas Kleiza right out of the game.
”They did a great job on our leader, Linas Kleiza. We couldn’t find a solution on their star Kevin Durant,” Lithuania coach Kestutis Kemzura said. ”He was unstoppable today.”
The teams met last month in an exhibition game in Madrid, and the U.S. shot just 3 of 21 in the first quarter before rallying for a 77-61 victory. There would be no slow start this time.
Lithuania led by two midway through the first quarter before Durant seized the game, showing off his entire repertoire. First there was a dunk, followed by a three-point play and two free throws. Iguodala briefly interrupted the Durant show with a dunk, then Durant scored on a follow shot and made a 3-pointer.
In just 3 1/2 minutes, he had taken the U.S. from down two to up 10, and Lithuania never really recovered.
The Lithuanians hit their first eight 3-pointers in their quarterfinal victory over Argentina, but the outside shot wasn’t falling Saturday. They hit only three of 12 in the first half, yet still were down only eight with 3 minutes left before Thunder struck – the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Durant and Westbrook combined for nine straight points, extending the lead to 42-25. The U.S. took a 15-point advantage into the half.
The Americans extended the lead to 19 in the third quarter, and though Lithuania kept making little runs, could never get within single digits. Durant finished 14 of 25 from the field, adding nine rebounds in 38 minutes before taking a seat with 44 seconds remaining.
Robertas Javtokas had 15 points and nine rebounds for Lithuania, which lost for the first time and will play for bronze. Kleiza, who was averaging 19.1 points, was limited to four on 1-of-11 shooting.
Odom said playing on Sept. 11 was ”an incredible moment for all us.” A native New Yorker, he said he lost friends from high school in the terrorist attacks on the United States nine years ago, and U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski also said he knew people that died.
”So to be playing and representing your country, it’s a big deal,” Odom said.
The Americans came in averaging 95 points and led the tournament in many other categories. But that was the case four years ago, too, and none of that mattered when Greece executed at will over the final three quarters in a 101-95 semifinal victory.
That was the latest U.S. disappointment in an event it was won only three times. Krzyzewski had lost in the semifinals of both previous appearances, with his team of college players winning a bronze in 1990.
Now the Americans have a chance at gold, and with it an automatic berth into the 2012 Olympics. Many of the stars have indicated they may return for that, so it’s unknown how many of these players will be back.
One thing has become clear: There will be a place for Durant.
”Really nobody can guard him, really,” Gordon said. ”He’s like that in the NBA and it’s translating over here.”