POSTED: 11:45 a.m. HST, Sep 09, 2010
ISTANBUL — Chauncey Billups made the promise. Kevin Durant made sure it was kept.
And by beating Russia on Thursday, the Americans brought a little joy to one of the players who will never forget what happened against the Soviets exactly 38 years earlier.
Durant scored 33 points to lead the United States to an 89-79 victory that moved it within two wins of its first world basketball championship since 1994.
The victory came on the anniversary of the Soviet Union's win over the Americans for the 1972 Olympic gold medal, a game with an ending so controversial the U.S. players refused to accept their silver medals.
No player on the young American team is old enough to remember that game — many are barely old enough to remember the Cold War. But Mike Bantom, the NBA's senior vice president of player development, played on that U.S. team and is in Turkey with the Americans.
"I told him today, 'I know nothing's going to bring that back, man, but at least we'll try to make you at least smile today,' " Billups said. "And he was like, 'Yeah, that'd be nice."
Durant ensured there would be no worries at the finish of this one, shooting 11 of 19 while just missing Carmelo Anthony's world championship team record of 35 points, set in 2006.
"We're going to go to him," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I've learned in coaching you should get your best player the ball."
The U.S. will play Saturday against Lithuania, which beat Argentina 104-85. Host Turkey and Serbia will play in the other semifinal.
The U.S. and Russia have met many times since 1972, including a U.S. victory 16 years ago in Toronto that gave the Americans their last world championship. And there isn't much of a rivalry anymore between the nations — the NBA even opened an office in Moscow on Thursday.
But the memory hasn't faded of the clash in Munich, where the Soviets were given a third chance after the Americans stopped them twice in the final 3 seconds, and they eventually scored on the second do-over for a 51-50 victory — the Americans' first Olympic loss after 63 victories.
David Blatt, Russia's American-born coach, reopened some scars that will never heal for members of that U.S. team this week when he said he'd watched a film about the game and believed the outcome was fair.
Krzyzewski responded that, of course, Blatt would have that opinion as a Russian — which Blatt is not. He was born in the United States and went to Princeton.
Blatt stuck by his feelings about that game, but said his comments this week were taken out of context and the resulting back-and-forth was just gamesmanship.
"Coach K knows as well as I do that disagreeing or agreeing is generally very American," Blatt said. "We don't all have to see things the same way." Blatt's team looked poised to deal the Americans more heartbreak, running its offense well in the first half and capitalizing on its size advantage inside to frustrate the U.S.
Then, leading by only five in the third quarter, the Americans finally began forcing the Russians into mistakes, which they turned into transition baskets that finally allowed them to shake free.
Russell Westbrook dunked after a turnover, hit a 3-pointer, came up with a steal and had another dunk to key a decisive 15-5 spurt that pushed the U.S. lead to 65-50. The Oklahoma City guard converted a three-point play to open the scoring in the fourth, and Durant's brilliance from there helped the Americans further extend it in the fourth.
Billups scored 15 points and Westbrook finished with 12, including seven in a row for the Americans when their athleticism finally turned away a Russian team that had the pace to its liking for the first half.
"I think some of us, we kind of started off a little slow and then didn't jump on them early, and tonight that was a big problem for us," Westbrook said. "Then second half, we kind of got into our rhythm."
The Americans finished with a 22-2 advantage in fast-break points and a 20-2 edge in points off turnovers.
Sergey Bykov scored 17 points for Russia, which exceeded expectations in this tournament after coming to the worlds without some of its top talent, most notably Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, the MVP of their 2007 European championship.
Andrey Vorontsevich had 14 points and 12 rebounds, and Timofey Mozgov, recently signed by the New York Knicks, scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
The Americans missed 17 of their first 25 shots, rotated too slowly on defense, and were outworked on the boards while trailing for much of the first half.
The U.S. built an early six-point advantage before Mozgov began to control the middle. He hit all four of his shots in the first quarter, twice while getting fouled, and his last basket tied it at 25 heading to the second period.
Russia got the first two baskets of that quarter, starting with an embarrassingly easy drive into the lane for an uncontested layup by Dmitriy Khvostov. The Russians pushed their lead to 35-30 midway through the period on consecutive baskets by Bykov, and only then did the Americans start digging in on defense.
They held Russia without a basket for more than 4 minutes, running off 12 straight points to take a seven-point lead, before going into the locker room ahead 44-39.
The Russians will play in the consolation bracket, still hoping to finish fifth.