Few things motivate better than fear of losing, be it income or health or life or family or even a sporting event.
The United States men’s basketball team, fearing embarrassment on an international scale, reached that point Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro and responded in spectacular fashion.
No one delivered more spectacularly than Warriors forward Kevin Durant.
Bringing a level of intensity not seen in previous games of these Olympics, Durant attacked his first bucket. Breaking a couple Argentine ankles in the process, he scored seven seconds after tipoff and fired in 13 points in a practically perfect first quarter that launched Team USA to a 105-78 victory over Argentina.
That sent the Americans into a semifinal game Friday against Spain, which is superior to Argentina and, therefore, good enough to increase the fear factor.
"We've always felt Spain, they'd have a gold-medal chance, and why wouldn't we think that?" Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters in Rio. "The last two gold-medal games we've played were against them and they were great, great games."
If Team USA applies itself as it did Wednesday – and as it failed to do in the three previous games – Durant and his teammates will be just fine. They’ll banish Spain by double digits and prepare for the winner of the Serbia-Croatia semifinal on Sunday.
“We knew we had to raise our level,” Pacers star Paul George said afterward. “How we were playing wasn’t good enough. We did a great job defensively of getting stops, forcing turnovers, getting out on the fast break. That’s where our game has been lost, the fast break game.”
With the abundance of talent on Team USA, it’s about staying focused and displaying energy, especially on defense.
If the win over Argentina is any indication, Durant is poised to ensure that. The best player on the team came to play, play hard, and was willing to live with the result.
“I just didn’t care about the outcome of the game,” Durant said. “I was telling myself before I left my room today that I’m at my best when I don’t care if we win or lose. It might be different for other players but, for me, I’m (freer) and more aggressive in games and it’s more fun for me if I don’t care about the outcome.
“I know if I go out there and be who I am, the outcome will dictate itself. I just tried to play and be free out there and not worry about anything and tonight Coach put me in great positions all night and my teammates were supporting me and I just tried to be aggressive for them and play my game.”
Durant totaled a game-high 27 points (9-of-13 shooting, 7-of-9 from deep), seven rebounds and six assists.
So now it’s on to Spain, which features four NBA players, including Spurs big man Pau Gasol and Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio. That qualifies as enough of a threat for the men of Team USA to shed any semblance of overconfidence.
Two more wins will keep the promise of gold. After truly casual performances against Australia, Serbia and France, the victory over Argentina indicates Team USA can smell it now.
“I don’t want to say the team was different,” Cavs guard Kyrie Irving said of the quarterfinal win. “I just think the magnitude of what was at stake was a lot higher. We understood that, and we understand that we have to play our best games now.”
That they do. And fear of defeat makes it a lot easier to dig deep and do that.