ISTANBUL – Chauncey Billups made the promise. Kevin Durant made sure it was kept.
And by beating Russia on Thursday, the Americans brought a little joy to one of the players who will never forget what happened against the Soviets exactly 38 years earlier.
Durant scored 33 points to lead the United States to an 89-79 victory that moved it within two wins of its first world basketball championship since 1994.
The victory came on the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s win over the Americans for the 1972 Olympic gold medal, a game with an ending so controversial the U.S. players refused to accept their silver medals.
No player on the young American team is old enough to remember that game – many are barely old enough to remember the Cold War. But Mike Bantom, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development, played on that U.S. team and is in Turkey with the Americans.
“I told him today, ‘I know nothing’s going to bring that back, man, but at least we’ll try to make you at least smile today,’ ” Billups said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be nice.’ ”
Durant ensured there would be no worries at the finish of this one, shooting 11 of 19 while just missing Carmelo Anthony’s world championship team record of 35 points, set in 2006.
“We’re going to go to him,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I’ve learned in coaching you should get your best player the ball.”
The U.S. will play Saturday against Lithuania, which beat Argentina 104-85. Host Turkey and Serbia will play in the other semifinal.
The U.S. and Russia have met many times since 1972, including a U.S. victory 16 years ago in Toronto that gave the Americans their last world championship. And there isn’t much of a rivalry anymore between the nations – the NBA even opened an office in Moscow on Thursday.
But the memory hasn’t faded of the clash in Munich, where the Soviets were given a third chance after the Americans stopped them twice in the final 3 seconds, and they eventually scored on the second do-over for a 51-50 victory – the Americans’ first Olympic loss after 63 victories.
Leading by only five in the third quarter Thursday, the Americans finally began forcing the Russians into mistakes, which they turned into transition baskets that finally allowed them to shake free.
Russell Westbrook dunked after a turnover, hit a 3-pointer, came up with a steal and had another dunk to key a decisive 15-5 spurt that pushed the U.S. lead to 65-50. The Oklahoma City guard converted a three-point play to open the scoring in the fourth, and Durant’s brilliance from there helped the Americans further extend it in the fourth.
Billups scored 15 points.