TOKYO — Once again, the U.S. men’s basketball team struggled in a first half against a tough opponent.
Once again, the Americans silenced doubts by finding their rhythm and pulling away for victory, this time in a semifinal match against Australia, winning 97-78 and heading to the gold medal game on Saturday (Friday night in the U.S.). They will play either France or Slovenia to try to win their fourth consecutive gold medal.
Australia, ranked No. 3 in the world, led at the half, 45-42, but that was deceptive. The Americans, once in a 15-point hole, had already begun to rally and take permanent control in the second half.
They were backed by Kevin Durant’s 23 points and Devin Booker’s 20. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday added 11 apiece.
Durant said people should not get too excited when opponents jump to an early lead and suggested the U.S. was just sizing things up against teams that typically have more experience playing together than the Americans have had.
“We knew Australia would come out fast and hit us with a nice punch,” he said. “We know that teams want to get us down early, see how we respond. A lot of these guys got continuity for years and years so they know how to play with each other. I feel like a lot of teams are expecting us to fold early.
“We stuck with it,’’ he added, “stuck with our principles, made a couple of switches on defense, and we were able to get some momentum going into the half. Guys came out with that intensity, making shots as well.”
Australia’s aggressive three-point shooting cooled — Patty Mills led their scoring with 15 points and five rebounds — while the U.S. stepped up on defense.
“They’ve got a lot of firepower so we knew that if we gave them an inch, they would be able to take a mile,’’ said Australia’s Matisse Thybulle. “I think we played well, played hard for the majority of the game but they don’t need much to get going.”
Jock Landale said Australia had no answer when momentum shifted.
“They figure out what you’re doing and they just find ways to exploit it,’’ he said. “I think we started turning the ball over in that third quarter and they were just living in transition. And that’s tough to beat.”
The U.S. is now 9-0 against Australia in the Olympics.
Australia can still end up with its first-ever Olympic medal in basketball, playing in the bronze medal game Saturday against the loser of the other semifinal between Slovenia and France. They lost the bronze medal game by a point to Spain at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
The U.S. team, ranked No. 1 in the world, made it to the semifinal after defeating Spain on Tuesday, 95-81, despite a similarly sluggish start.
The Americans are trying to rewrite their story line from curiously questionable team to strong finisher, if not gold medalist.
And Durant said he is confident that will be the result, as long as the Americans continue to regroup on defense.
“I’m looking forward to going out there and executing the game plan on defense,” he said. “Offensively we’re not worried about that, but going out there and executing the game plan defensively as a team, and we’ll see what happens.”
After two exhibition losses before the start of the Games, including to Australia, the United States started its Olympic campaign with a loss to France. The Americans mostly cruised through their next two contests — against far weaker opponents, Iran and the Czech Republic — and had some time to establish some rhythm as a group.