RIO DE JANEIRO — The trip wasn’t always easy, though they arrived at their expected destination.
The players on the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team never doubted they would be standing on the gold-medal platform, even after some close calls in Rio and criticisms they lacked the usual big names and bigger wins.
“I know there was kind of a lot of buzz around us not playing well a couple of games, two, three games in the early round,” Carmelo Anthony said, “but the way that we locked in and the way that we focused in to be able to have this gold medal around our necks was special.”
Saving their best for last in a tournament that had been tough, the Americans convincingly won their third straight gold medal, beating Serbia 96-66 on Sunday.
“We came here and despite what people are saying about this group, being less talented and not blowing teams out, we did a good job of bottling all that up and unleashed it on Serbia,” forward Paul George said.
Kevin Durant scored 30 points in the final game with the national team for coach Mike Krzyzewski, who took the Americans back to the top and leaves with them there after becoming the first coach to win three Olympic gold medals.
“To go home as gold medalists and leave Coach K off with another gold was one of our main goals as well,” Durant said.
Anthony also picked up his third gold to go with a bronze, becoming the most decorated male in Olympic basketball history.
The U.S. beat Serbia by just 94-91 in pool play, holding on when Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. This rematch looked nothing like that meeting, but it did resemble the final of the 2014 Basketball World Cup, which the Americans won 129-92.
“To come out there and play as well as we did against a team that had stepped up their play as well, it showed that we came together at the right time,” Durant said.
Anthony checked back into the rout in the final minutes so he could grab a seventh rebound, passing David Robinson for the U.S. record with the 125th in his Olympic career. He had already become the leading scorer earlier in the tournament, capping an Olympic career that began with disappointment as a member of the U.S. team that finished third in 2004.
The Americans haven’t lost since, winning 25 straight in the Olympics.
A few of the victories were more difficult than usual in this tournament, where half the Americans’ eight games were decided by 10 points or fewer.
Krzyzewski said it didn’t matter how the Americans won, that there would be no questions as long as they did.
And there was no doubt they would Sunday once Durant heated up.
He had also scored 30 in the 2012 gold-medal game, after he poured in a U.S.-record 38 in one game en route to the MVP of the 2010 world basketball championship. He is already the Americans’ No. 2 career scorer in the Olympics in just two appearances.
When the final horn sounded, the U.S. players shared long hugs with each other and then Krzyzewski.
It was a tough ending after an impressive run for Serbia in its first Olympics as an independent nation. The heart of an international power in the former Yugoslavia, the Serbs hadn’t qualified for the Olympics since gaining their independence in 2006.
They dropped three games in the group stage but had the look of a team that could challenge the Americans after nearly knocking them off earlier in the tournament and overwhelming Australia in the semifinals.
They were down just 16-15 before Durant made a 3-pointer for the final points of the first quarter, and before they knew it he had turned the game into a blowout.
“They are superstars. If you let them play like they want, they will kill you,” guard Stefan Markovic said. “Each of their 12 guys can do that.”
A challenging year for the Americans started long before they boarded the cruise ship they stayed on while in Rio. For the first time since 2004, many top American players opted to skip the Olympics, forcing them to bring some here who wouldn’t have been considered otherwise.
The 10 Olympic newcomers seemed to be jelling slowly and the U.S. had a pair of three-point victories and came in winning by just 21.4 points per game, more than 10 per game fewer than four years ago and about half the 43.8 the Dream Team won by in 1992.
“This team kept getting better and even those three games in pool play, we had not played that type of game against that type of level of opponent,” Krzyzewski said. “We said it was a learning experience and our guys did learn and we put it to good practice.”
Krzyzewski, an assistant on the Dream Team, has long insisted that international basketball has gotten too strong for anyone to win that easily again.
Yet on Sunday, the Americans did.