Jim Souhan
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SAITAMA, JAPAN — The United States men's Olympic basketball team has played sluggishly.

The United States men's Olympic basketball team lost exhibitions to Nigeria. And Australia.

And lost its Olympic opener to France.

The team lacks talent and depth at center, and has only one true pass-first point guard.

The U.S. men tend to start slow, and have had bouts of seeming apathy on defense.

They're missing an all-star team of LeBron James, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard that, if healthy and willing, could probably beat the team playing in Tokyo.

Those are all facts and accurate observations that are about to be rendered irrelevant.

With a 97-78 victory over Australia in the Olympic semifinals on Thursday at Saitama Super Arena, the U.S. enters the gold medal game favored to win on Saturday in a rematch against France. And probably by a lot.

"They're as good a Team USA as I've played against,'' Australian coach Brian Goorjian said. "I love the way we played. I thought we did it right. The problem was trying to do that for 40 minutes against a team like this.''

On Thursday, the U.S. started slowly and trailed 41-26 with 5:25 remaining in the second quarter.

From that point, the U.S. outscored Australia 16-4 the rest of the quarter, then 32-10 in the third quarter to take control.

"We took that six minutes in the second quarter and kind of ramped it up, and went into halftime in the position we liked,'' USA guard Jrue Holiday said.

Said USA forward Kevin Durant: "We knew Australia would come out fast and hit us with a nice punch. 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, 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.''

Since losing to France 83-76 in the Olympic opener, the U.S. is 4-0, winning those games by an average of 30.5 points. The U.S. will play France again for the gold medal (Friday at 9:30 p.m. in the Twin Cities) after the French edged Luka Doncic and Slovenia 90-89 in the other semifinal.

This American team never lacked scoring or shooting. What it lacked was cohesion, patience and whatever the word is that describes making the winning play at the right time.

It is probably nota coincidence that the U.S. has thrived since the arrival of the players who vied for the NBA titles — Milwaukee's Holiday and Khris Middleton, and Phoenix's Devin Booker.

Tired legs and jet lag haven't kept those three from contributing in important ways. Holiday gave the U.S. a distributor and perimeter defender. Middleton added to the mid-range shooting and defense. Booker brought his ability to score from anywhere on the court.

And the three brought the U.S. a level of depth that has insulated the Americans from foul trouble and fatigue.

"The addition from the time we played them last time of Booker, Middleton and Holiday just gave them more bite,'' Goorjian said.

The Americans also have the best player in the tournament: Durant. He has scored 23 points or more in three consecutive games, doing so without forcing shots.

What's it like playing against a team with Team USA's talent, after they've gotten used to one another?

"It's hard,'' Australia's Jock Landale said. "They're great basketball players, they're smart basketball players. They figure out what you're doing and they just find ways to exploit it.

"That first half was damn near a perfect half, I think. We started turning the ball over in the third quarter and they were just living in transition. And that's tough to beat. They're the most athletic guys in the world, so I think that's probably where we lost them.''

Complete coverage from Tokyo on our Olympics page