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Sunday, July 22, 2012
Updated: July 24, 11:57 PM ET
Durant unguardable, then guarded

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

BARCELONA, Spain -- Kevin Durant was at his deadly best Sunday night in the Palau Sant Jordi, leaving you with the feeling that every time he hoisted the ball only fate could make him miss.

He rainbowed 11 shots from behind the 3-point line, drained seven of them and, thanks to the big triples he hit early and late in this 86-80 victory over Argentina, earned himself a trip to the interview room to sit at the winners' podium alongside Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Which resulted in a quick trip, just like that, from virtually unguardable to pretty guarded.

While Krzyzewski answered questions, Durant kept his head down, eyes on his phone, looking up only when someone directly addressed him. Others on this exhibition tour have noticed it as well since Team USA arrived in Europe: Durant isn't who you go to these days for broad smiles or long conversations.

Not that Krzyzewski minds.

As long as Durant keeps torching the opposition like he did in this one -- fueling a 16-1 start to the game with three 3s and then tossing in a dagger trey in crunch time after Manu Ginobili had hauled Argentina to within four points late -- Coach K will happily deal with a stone-faced star.

Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant led Team USA with 27 points in a close win in Barcelona.

When it was suggested that Durant looks even more serious than usual, Krzyzewski quickly fired back: "He looked like he did in Istanbul tonight."

Translation: Why nitpick when Durant, as he so often was throughout Team USA's triumphant march through the FIBA World Championship field in Turkey in 2010, looked like the best player on the floor with a near-flawless 27 points?

It's a fair point. Maybe Durant hasn't had much to say lately. Maybe he's not nearly as bubbly as the guy who spent the lockout summer of 2011 dropping in on every high-level pickup game he could find. But it's certainly not affecting his play.

It's also perfectly understandable if Durant, as it appears, isn't terribly thrilled to be back in the spotlight so soon. The NBA Finals ended June 21. Team USA players reported to training camp in Las Vegas on July 5. That didn't leave a lot of time to grieve after a Finals defeat inflicted by LeBron James' Miami Heat, which was only suffered after Durant's Thunder not only mowed through the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs but also won Game 1 of the championship series at home.

"That phase is over with," Durant insisted twice during his turn at the microphone late Sunday, referring to the Finals.

"I'm going to do," Durant continued, "whatever Coach needs me to do."

Another prevalent theory is that Durant, by far the youngest gun in the group Krzyzewski refers to his as his "seven starters," naturally recedes into the background with James and Kobe Bryant around instead of trying to muscle in and assert himself as one of Team USA's alpha dogs. Essentially trying to meld two teams together, with five returnees from both the 2008 gold-medal-winning Olympic squad and four others from Durant's Istanbul crew, USA Basketball coaches and officials are trying to sit back as patiently as they can to let this group's pecking order sort itself out organically.

Yet it must be noted that Durant, even as you process all the above, did exactly what he promised in the Argentina win, supplying far more for Krzyzewski than mere shooting before the late 3s he and Chris Paul sank to seal the victory.

The Yanks came away from this W miffed about their failure to sustain a lead that swelled as high as 20 points … and their collective reluctance to attack the basket after making their first seven shots to go up big early … and their poor response to Argentina's inevitable attempts to make the game chippy. But Durant had an impact as tone-setter as well as a killer shooter, stepping straight into a second-quarter scrap with Luis Scola to stick up for Paul and memorably chasing Andres Nocioni down on a fast break with a hard sprint the other way to catch Nocioni and swat away his layup when Team USA was already leading by 18.

"We haven't seen any signs of Kevin, Russell or James holding back," Krzyzewski said of the three Thunder players on the Olympic roster: Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. "They've handled everything well."

Hard to argue when Durant, having returned to the starting lineup ahead of Carmelo Anthony after their roles were reversed in Thursday's win over Great Britain, had better aim from deep (7-for-11) than LeBron had at the free throw line (3-for-9).

"I think they're going to be OK," Scola said, taking little heart from the way Argentina scrapped back into the game because the Americans, as he sees it, are "too athletic" and "too talented."

Said Anthony: "That's what Argentina does. They come out, they try to play physical, they bring the nastiness to the game. … They did that in the second quarter and it got them back in the game. They made it a game from there."

"[But] we're fine. We won. … We weren't expecting to come out and blow them out tonight. We expected a game like this coming into it."

So instead of fretting about how much closer things might have been if Ginobili (23 points) hadn't been derailed by second-half foul trouble, Anthony focused instead on the throwback uniforms Team USA sported to honor the 20-year anniversary of the Dream Team's historic conquest of Barcelona at the 1992 Olympics. "They were nice, I'll tell you that," Melo said.

Bryant, meanwhile, revealed that he hopes to make a face-to-face connection with Barcelona soccer star Lionel Messi on Monday before Tuesday night's exhibition finale against mighty Spain here in the same building.

Which brings us back to Durant, who insists that worrying about him, too, is time wasted.

"Of course I'm trying not to think about the Finals," Durant said the other day. "But we don't talk about that stuff. Nobody [on the team] brings it up. We don't talk about individual stuff like that. We're all fans of each other."

Seven 3s, folks. Pretty much all of them punctuated with, if not a smile, Durant confidently gesturing to the sky.

What's not to like?