Back and forth they went, the reigning Olympic champions from the US on one side, the reigning Fiba World Cup champions from Spain on the other.
The difference: The Americans had Kevin Durant.
He’s never gone to the Olympics and not won gold – and clearly, doesn’t plan on that changing. Durant scored 29 points to keep his quest for a third Olympic title alive, and the Americans are headed to the medal round after ousting Spain 95-81 on Tuesday in a quarter-final matchup at the Tokyo Games.
Jayson Tatum scored 13 and Jrue Holiday added 12 for the US, who will play Australia in the semi-finals on Thursday. The Americans also gave themselves the chance of extending a streak like none other in Olympic basketball history – in all 18 of their previous Olympic men’s basketball appearances, they’ve gone home with a medal.
Ricky Rubio was brilliant for Spain, scoring 38 points and Sergio Rodriguez added 16.
It wasn’t easy, and rarely is against Spain. This was the fifth time the teams had met in the Olympic quarter-finals or later since 2004; the US are now 5-0 in those games, but the margin of victory in those is a close-by-American-Olympic-standards: 9.2 points.
Spain had won three consecutive Olympic medals, taking silvers after losing to the US in the gold medal games in 2008 and 2012, followed by a bronze in 2016 after falling to the US in the semi-finals.
And this may be the last time that the Spanish roster has some of its longtime mainstays; Pau Gasol is 41, other top players like Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez are much closer to the end than the beginning, and this might have been Spain’s best chance to beat the US at the Olympics.
Spain got down seven early, then simply did whatever it wanted against the US for a 10-minute stretch of the first half. It was a 29-12 run by the time it was over, a burst that turned a 17-10 early deficit into a 39-29 lead with 3:25 left until halftime.
Spain shot 13 for 22 during that stretch, the US just 5 for 22 – missing 12 of their last 13 shots in the run. But just when it looked like the Americans were in big trouble, it was their turn to rally.
A 14-4 US run to close the half made it a 43-43 game at intermission, the burst capped by seven consecutive points over the final 70 seconds.
And with that, it was a 20-minute game to decide who would play for medals and who would be going home earlier than planned.
The Americans didn’t trail again.
They opened the second half on a 15-4 run – making it a 22-4 run going back to late in the second quarter – and went on to lead by as many as 16 before taking a 69-63 edge into the fourth.