The words, scrawled in marker on the tops of his sneakers, remind Kevin Durant why he started playing basketball in the first place. Even in the Olympics, it’s just a game. On his left sneaker, Durant scribbled, “Have Fun.” On the right one, “Smile.”
“I forgot to write it last night,” Durant said grinning on Thursday.
That’s about the only thing he didn’t do. Durant scored 27 points with seven rebounds and six assists in a quarterfinal blowout of Argentina. He also executed a two-crossover, Euro-step, one-legged fadeaway in the lane, a sequence of intricate basketball moves that might make an Olympic gymnast envious.
With the US team needing a lift, something to shake it from this South American slumber and re-direct the angst aimed at the 2016 collection of NBA All-Stars after three lackluster victories, Durant delivered.
“This is the stage he thrives on,” said U.S. point guard Kyrie Irving. “You can count on KD being KD in the biggest moments, which we have all come to respect and kind of rely on.”
Durant’s performance against Argentina pushed the U.S. a step closer to its third straight gold medal and set up a semifinal showdown on Friday with Spain, the two-time defending silver medalist hoping a third time is championship charmed against the Americans.
After deferring to his teammates and taking just 10 shots in the previous two games, Durant was in attack mode from the outset against the Argentines, who jumped out to a 19-9 lead before the U.S. erupted on a 27-2 run and into Rio’s semis with a 105-78 win.
This was the Durant everyone had been waiting for, the one who shot the U.S. to a 2010 world championship in Turkey, scored 30 in the gold-medal game in 2012 and has reached double digits in all 14 Olympic games he’s played.
Durant had not been himself earlier in the tournament, and maybe it’s not a coincidence that the U.S. team had not played up to expectations — as unrealistic as that sometimes seem — while squirming through pool play undefeated.
But when the stakes got higher, Durant again raised his game and perhaps motivated his teammates. He’s averaging 18.5 points and shooting 66 percent (18 of 27) on 3-pointers.
“I don’t think I inspired them just because I scored points,” he said following practice at the Flamengo Club, a short drive from scenic Leblon Beach. “I just think my energy, my aggressiveness and just being excited to play, I think that rubbed off on everybody and I just try to display that every time I play.
“I got away from that the last couple of games, but I just always try to stay conscious of just smiling out there, having fun. My smile is contagious and my energy and enthusiasm for the game is contagious and I try to spread that to my teammates.”
That smile disappeared for a short time earlier this summer.
Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City as a free agent and sign with Golden State, forming a super team with Stephen Curry and U.S teammates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, brought criticism and questions about him for the first time in his career.
Durant was branded a quitter, unable to win a championship without help. He was called soft, overrated, insecure and worse. The noise was deafening, and Durant found the only way to drown it was to ignore it.
“It took me some time to get used to everything on the outside of a game, whether it was media or fans and their points of view,” he said. “What I had to learn over the last few years was just to relax, don’t care if I missed a shot or if I turned the ball over or if I don’t box out and someone scores on me. I can’t worry about that stuff and that just keeps me calm in those moments.”
When the U.S. team convened for training camp in Las Vegas, center DeAndre Jordan offered Durant some advice.
“I told him, `You gotta worry about you,”’ said Jordan, who had his own free agency fiasco in 2015. “’You can’t worry about what other people say. They don’t have to play in that city or play for that team. It’s ultimately what’s best for Kevin.’ And once I told him that, he kind of relaxed a little bit. I’m happy for him.”
Durant seems at ease, finally at peace with his decision. He’s enjoyed his time with Thompson and Green, and believes their Olympic chemistry will carry over once they’re with Curry.
For now, though, Durant is focused solely on this team, which is taking its cues from a player who once he steps onto the floor morphs from laid-back to into an offensive juggernaut.
“When he’s attacking, it sends a lightning bolt through the team,” Jordan said.
The Americans were looking for direction, and Durant is showing them the way. Smiling every step.