After struggling to narrow victories in three straight games, the United States men's basketball team thumped Argentina on Wednesday, looking more like the group everyone expected to see in Rio. By the end, the game had the air of a collaborative effort. Paul George and Jimmy Butler pestered the Argentina guards into turnover after turnover, Kyrie Irving applied his pixie-dust footwork, and DeMarcus Cousins came as close to giving Luis Scola a swirly as he could without running afoul of the referees and Olympic bylaws.
The story of the night, though, was Kevin Durant. Over the course of the group stage, Team USA had been plagued by a problem common to post-Dream Team American squads. They were overly deferential, too respectful to adhere to a pecking order, swing-passing late into shot clocks. On Wednesday, Durant put an end to that. Emboldened by Coach K's comment that "We obviously need him to be the Kevin Durant of Istanbul and London," the team's and tournament's best player went for 27 points on 9-13 shooting before resting most of the fourth quarter. Durant saw the US through a shaky start, spurred the run that turned things around, and, once Argentina was pretty well buried, packed on some extra dirt.
His output was impressive, but more important was how he went about it. While the other Americans sometimes stalled, Durant did something in a hurry every time he touched the ball. He made three quick-trigger triples in the first quarter, and shuttled two nifty backdoor passes to George and Cousins. He dribbled around a screen and, in spite of a trapping double-team, rose and dropped in a fadeaway—a "bad shot," maybe, but one that loosened things up like a bawdy joke at a too-proper dinner party. The last American points of the first half came when Durant, isolated on the wing, shook Andres Nocioni into a stupor, and canned an odd-angle floater; in the first minute of the second half, he dribbled straight down the damn court and pulled up for a three that stretched the US lead to 21.
The performance made the concerns of the preceding week—was the roster poorly constructed, had the thanks-but-no-thanks-es piled up?—seem hilariously overthought. In Durant, Team USA has a seven-footer who handles and shoots as well as anyone alive, a bucket-getting angel. Spain's old heads will surely put up a fight in the semifinals, and an Australia team that has already hung with the Americans once before lurks in the gold medal game, but a locked-in Durant quiets all concerns. The only thing that can slow him is his team's misguided attempt to spread the shine evenly; after the Argentina game, that habit looks broken.
Back before the Olympic tournament started, when American victory was a little more presumptive, the most interesting subplot centered on how Durant would look next to his new teammates with the Golden State Warriors, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Rio hasn't proven much of a trial run in that regard; Green's minutes have shrunk, and Team USA's uninspired offense doesn't look anything like the Bay Area basketball machine. If anything, the US finds its footing most when Durant flashes back to his Thunder days, putting together torrential stretches where the other four players' jobs consist of staying out of his way and dispensing high-fives.
Still, Durant has provided some small preview of what he might bring to his new club. Watching the Olympic team struggle from time to time can remind you of Golden State's Finals collapse, a sense of contingencies breaking down. The Warriors need to cut sharp and screen hard; Team USA needs its roles to click. Now, though, both teams have someone whose list of requirements is much shorter. As Argentina learned and America remembered on Wednesday, Kevin Durant just needs the ball.