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Hey, Durant: You gotta keep shooting
If Kevin Durant is the NBA’s ego-less, considerate, likable superstar — who else would have jumped at the chance to sign a long-term deal in that font of high culture and nightlife, Oklahoma City? — he has landed in the one place where manners might be a problem.
In a tank full of sharks.
Durant has won three straight NBA scoring titles. But he’s still just 23, it’s his first Olympics, and who is he — a guy who often defers to Russell Westbrook — to be taking shots away from Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and anyone else without a conscience?
But when the curtain went up Sunday on the United States basketball team, one of the few matters that could be affirmed in a 98-71 trouncing of France was what had become increasingly apparent in its exhibition games.
The Americans are best when Durant is shooting the ball.
It’s not that Durant led the United States with 22 points, it was how he did it that makes it clear how important it will be for Durant to be taking shots when there inevitably is a game of consequence in this tournament.
Durant clearly is the most fluid shooter, and the one most comfortable with the unforgiving rims and slicker Olympic basketballs that often leave dead-eye NBA shooters clanking balls off the backboard.
“I told KD to be himself,” said LeBron James, who directed the offense for much of the game, taking just six shots but collecting eight assists, including a beautiful half-the-length-of-the-court bounce pass that reached Durant for a dunk.
“On a team like this, you can kind of shy away because there are so many great players here. But KD’s on this team for a reason. He’s one of the best players in the world. We don’t want the KD that defers. We want the KD that he is in Oklahoma City.”
It is a constant refrain, one that began with a conversation with coach Mike Krzyzewski after the NBA Finals and has been echoed through training camp in Las Vegas and trips to Washington D.C., Manchester and Barcelona.
When Durant passes up an open look, Bryant said, his advice is even more direct.
“Just shoot the damn ball,” he said.
Said Durant: “Sometimes Coach was screaming at me and Chris Paul was screaming at me more than anybody, ‘Shoot the ball!’ I guess I’ve got to be aggressive.”
Durant, who took a team-high 13 shots, often was left alone when France’s mix of zone and man-to-man defense rotated. He sank three of five 5 3-pointers. Everyone else on the floor — French and Americans alike — were a combined 7 for 42 on 3-pointers.
Deron Williams, who played in Turkey during the NBA lockout, said the adjustment to international basketball is a real one for American shooters.
“If you hit all rim, it’s going to rim out,” Williams said. “When I went to Turkey, I had to put more arc on the ball to try to swish more. (The ball), it’s just a different feel. The new ones are real slippery — the same with NBA balls, but we just don’t play with new ones.”
Whether that explains why Durant, at the end of halftime, was warming up with shots that arched a good 10 feet over the top of the backboard is uncertain.
But it does explain why a 6-foot-10 shooter with an already high arc on his shot looks so comfortable.
“If he played like this in his first Olympic Games ever, it was not bad at all, was it?” Bryant said of Durant, who also had nine rebounds, two steals, two blocks and two assists.
It was not a bad start at all for the United States either.
On paper France might have presented a better challenge, with Tony Parker, coming off his best NBA season, along with burgeoning star Nicholas Batum and a cast of current and former NBA role players.
But Parker is clearly out of shape, if not out of sorts after nearly losing an eye when he was hit with a shard of glass during a melee between the entourages of rappers Chris Brown and Drake in New York last month. And it didn't help that France did not have its first practice as a group until Saturday.
The French also missed 22 of 24 3-pointers.
“We tried,” said Batum, who said his back was sore from standing for four hours at the opening ceremonies. “At least we tried.”
Now, with Tunisia and Nigeria up next in group play, the United States will surely not be tested. But Team USA can clean up some of the rough edges it showed Sunday — gaining more comfort shooting, adjusting to the international referees (Westbrook and Anthony both got in early foul trouble) and playing with a little more interest than they showed.
After the game end, the players and coaches paraded in front of Michelle Obama, who gave them each a hug. Her husband, the First Hoops Fan, might have had a word or two about the sloppiness that they played with.
But the only complaints about Durant came on the rare occasion that he passed up a shot.