SAITAMA, Japan >> Kevin Durant and the Americans still have their grip on gold and it’s going to take more than a few bad minutes for anyone to take it away from them.
They were awful early, then awesome afterward against Australia.
Durant scored 23 points, Devin Booker had 20 and the U.S. blew past and eventually blew away the Aussies 97-78 on Thursday in the Olympic men’s basketball semifinals after falling into a 15-point hole.
With their gold-medal streak looking in jeopardy midway through the second quarter, the Americans overwhelmed the Australians with a 48-14 stretch that gave them a 74-55 lead after three periods.
“Everything fell in line for us in that second half and that’s who we are,” Durant said.
The U.S. missed its first 10 3-point attempts and didn’t hit one until late in the second quarter. Then it felt as if the Americans hardly missed again, with Booker making three 3-pointers.
Jrue Holiday had 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the U.S., which will play European champion Slovenia or France for a fourth straight gold medal Saturday. The French beat the Americans 83-76 in their Olympic opener.
That was part of a 2-3 start to the summer for the U.S., which included a loss to the Australians in an exhibition game in Las Vegas.
The Americans don’t look like that team anymore.
They look like the best team in the world, like those that used to win gold with ease.
Patty Mills scored 15 points for Australia, which still needs a win for its first Olympic basketball medal.
The Australians have finished fourth four times at the Olympics, including in 2016, but believed this time they could bring home gold.
For 1 ½ quarters, it looked like they’d get a chance.
They dropped the Americans into a double-digit deficit for the second straight game, outplaying the world’s No. 1-ranked team and looking capable of forcing the U.S. to settle for anything other than Olympic gold for the first time since the Americans stumbled home with bronze in 2004.
But the U.S. recovered and romped, improving to 9-0 against Australia at the Olympics.
“They hit us with a nice punch,” Durant said. “We knew that team was going to get us down early and see how we’d respond.”
The minutes before the first semifinal were another unusual scene in these most unusual Olympics, where the public address announcer pleaded multiple times for players to clear the court while Durant and Mills were warming up so a robot that entertains the almost-nonexistent audience could perform his shooting routine before the game.
The robot missed both his attempts from halfcourt. His long-range shooting was off.
So were the Americans, at least for a little while.
The Australians patiently ran their offensive sets but weren’t afraid to run with the U.S., turning a steal into Joe Ingles’ second straight 3-pointer in a 6-2 start.
But there were signs that Mills, who came into the game averaging 20.8 points, was just a little off his game. A jumper rolled around and out, a layup hung on the rim and then fell off. He finished just 5 of 14.
It didn’t matter early, as the Australians opened an eight-point lead while the Americans managed only one basket over a span of more than four minutes. Australia took a 24-18 lead into the second quarter after Chris Goulding made a 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
The U.S. kept misfiring from behind the arc and even had some shaky moments at the rim — Khris Middleton had an open dunk attempt, coming off the baseline he slammed the ball into the front of the rim.
The Australians took advantage with eight straight points midway through the second. Dante Exum made a 3-pointer, Matisse Thybulle converted a three-point player after scoring on the break and Exum threw a lob to Jock Landale to make it 41-26 with 5:23 to go.
But the Australians got only one basket from there and will look back at that stretch if they again go home without a medal. They still led by 11 with 2:59 to go but the Americans got the final eight points and were a missed 3 from Jayson Tatum from tying it at the half, with Australia bringing a 45-42 edge to the locker room.
Then the Americans came back with two baskets from Holiday and two more from Durant. By the time the Australians got a basket nearly four minutes into the half, the U.S. had opened a nine-point lead.
The Americans closed the quarter with a 15-2 push that turned a six-point lead into a 74-55 cushion.