SAITAMA, Japan (AP) - The U.S. lost its first two exhibition games of the summer in Las Vegas, dropped its opening game at these Olympics and had a difficult time shaking free of the Czech Republic in their group-play finale.
None of that matters now.
The Americans are headed to the quarterfinals at the Tokyo Games — with a shot of being good as gold once again. Jayson Tatum scored 27 points, Kevin Durant added 23 and set a pair of USA Basketball men's Olympic records, and the U.S. defeated the Czechs 119-84 on Saturday to clinch a berth in the knockout stage.
Zach LaVine scored 13 points, Jrue Holiday had 11 and JaVale McGee finished with 10 points for the U.S. The Americans shot 7 for 20 in the first quarter — then made 33 of 44 shots over the next 26 minutes, including a staggering 21-for-25 start to the second half.
The U.S. (2-1) finished second behind France in Group A, but will join the French, Australia and the winner of Sunday’s game between Slovenia and Spain as a top-four seed for Tuesday’s quarterfinals based on FIBA's tiebreaker system that includes point differential.
Those quarterfinal matchups will be decided in a draw on Sunday night, but the U.S. has now assured itself of not having to face any of the three group winners until at least the semifinals.
Blake Schilb scored 17 for the Czech Republic (1-2), which led by 10 early and was still up 60-54 midway through the third quarter.
In a flash, the Czech hope of a stunner ended there.
Durant — who passed Carmelo Anthony as both the U.S. Olympic men’s all-time points and all-time field goals leader during the game — hit a 3-pointer to end the third quarter, capping a 22-6 run that put the Americans up by 22 going into the final quarter.
The outcome was not in doubt again.
Ondrej Balvin scored 15, Jan Vesely had 13 and Tomas Satoransky added 12 points for the Czechs.
The U.S. is headed to the quarters, where it is win-or-else time. And the quarterfinals were the round where it all went awry for the U.S. at the last major international competition, the Basketball World Cup in China two years ago. The Americans lost to France, ending all hope of a medal and eventually finished seventh.
Kevin Durant, No. 7 of Team USA, and his teammates celebrate their victory over the Czech Republic during the second half of a Men's Basketball Preliminary Round Group A game on Day 8 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on July 31,
This team — 54-point winners over Iran and 35-point winners on Saturday — hasn’t looked much like that one, though it needed some time to find its best stride against the Czechs.
The Czechs led by as many as 10 in the first quarter, shooting 65% to the Americans’ 35% in the opening 10 minutes. With a roster featuring just one current NBA player — Satoransky — they did not look the least bit intimidated by the U.S.
Durant gave the U.S. its first lead midway through the second quarter, a 3-pointer putting the Americans up 34-33. The lead eventually got to as much as seven, before the U.S. settled for a 47-43 edge at halftime.
And that left some in the crowd -- hundreds of people were in the lower bowl of the arena, even though no tickets were being sold -- more than a bit anxious. Among them: Members of the German team; their hopes of qualifying as one of the top third-place teams hinged on the outcome of this game.
By the start of the fourth, the Germans could relax. So could the Americans.