Published November 20, 2014
Kevin Durant talks of playing within the offense, letting the game come to him instead of demanding the ball.
That isn't an option unless the United States is satisfied with falling short of a world championship again.
If the Americans want to go home with gold, Durant must lead them to it.
"He's got to be there for us, every night," assistant coach Jim Boeheim said.
The Americans were stopped in the semis four years ago, beaten by Greece and settling for a bronze medal. Durant is the key to avoiding another disappointment.
"He's our man and that's what we've focused on since the time we got together," guard Chauncey Billups said.
Durant scored 33 points, two shy of the U.S. record at the worlds, in an 89-79 victory over Russia in the quarterfinals. He raised his average to 19.9 points per game, fifth-best in the tournament and tops among players still with a chance to medal.
If he maintains that average, he would tie Carmelo Anthony's 2006 mark for best on a U.S. team that featured NBA players.
"We don't want to rely on him like that, but if he's scoring like that at will and really making it easy, why not feed the guy whenever he's open?" guard Stephen Curry said. "Even when he's not open, he'll find a way to get open, so he's definitely playing at a high level right now scoring-wise."
Boeheim and U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski agree that more is asked of Durant, the NBA's scoring champion, than any other recent American player. Boeheim said the 2008 Olympic gold medalists, with Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, had much more firepower than the current team.
So while Durant downplays his scoring, the rest of the Americans rely on it. Billups said half of the Americans' plays are for the Oklahoma City All-Star.
"Talking to Coach K, he said, 'You have to be the star for us,' and he's answered that call," Billups said. "We know that in international basketball, a 4-man is going to be guarding him, and there's no 4-man that can guard him at all, so we use that to our advantage."
Lithuania has the offense to match. The Lithuanians buried Argentina under an avalanche of 3-pointers Thursday, making their first eight of the game and rolling to a 104-85 victory.
"You hit eight out of eight 3s, boy, that can happen to any of us in this competition," Krzyzewski said, tapping his chest to imply a stake through the heart. "You're outscored 24-0 from the 3-point line, that's a tough, tough thing to overcome."
Potential finals opponents Turkey and Serbia both have made 71 3-pointers, two behind the Americans' tournament-leading total. The Turks, with a number of big men with range, lead all teams by shooting 43.8 percent behind the arc.
Lithuania can be just as dangerous.
"I think the toughest international teams to defend put four shooters on the court, where the 4 is also a good 3-point shooter, and that's what they do," Krzyzewski said. "And then when they sub at the center position, they actually have five good shooters."
The teams met last month in an exhibition game in Madrid, with the U.S. overcoming a 3-for-21 first quarter to rally for a 77-61 victory. The Americans have struggled through some similar droughts in Turkey, often needing Durant to bail them out.
He wasn't aware he had come so close to Anthony's single-game U.S. record Thursday until afterward.
"I was just trying to win, that's all I worry about here. I could score five points, if we win by 30 points, that's good to me," Durant said. "I'm just excited to be part of this great group and hopefully we get it done."
The Americans haven't won the world championship since 1994, when they had the tournament MVP in Shaquille O'Neal. Durant wouldn't even endorse himself for the all-tournament team following a practice this week, rattling off a list of other players he considered worthy and calling Argentina's Luis Scola the obvious MVP choice.
Scola has been superb, but his team couldn't get past Lithuania. The Americans might not either, unless Durant leads them.
"You've always got to feed the hot hand and he's been the hot hand the whole tournament," Curry said. "So hopefully it's got two more games left in it."