By Mary Milliken

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - DeAndre Jordan may not have been the starting center when Team USA arrived in Rio but the lowest drafted player among his Olympic teammates is the reason they will be playing for a third consecutive gold medal.

The unassuming Jordan, in only his second start of the Rio Games, gave the American men's basketball team much more of a defensive identity and was often the best player on the court in a hard-fought 82-76 semi-final victory over Spain on Friday.

The Los Angeles Clippers' big man dominated the boards, pulling down a U.S. Olympic record 16 rebounds, had nine points and kept Spanish center Pau Gasol from doing more damage in a scrappy contest.

"We would not be playing for the gold medal if DeAndre did not play that well," said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Former NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant singled out Jordan's role by saying "DJ was great with 16 rebounds and we are going to need that in the next game."

Jordan, 28, might not have even won a place on the team if not for the decision of several higher-profile players to bow out of these Games.

On a squad packed with NBA players who were top-10 draft picks, you have to look way down the 2008 class before you find Jordan's name at number 35.

While others handle the scoring, Jordan does the dirty work under the net and led the NBA in rebounds in 2014 and 2015.

The 2.11 meter Texan was modest about his success on Friday, saying his "number one job here is to come out and play with as much energy as I can.

"Giving the guys touch shots, blocked shots, that's the kind of player that I am. It just comes naturally."

Krzyzewski called Jordan "such a good team mate" and his NBA peers have found it very easy to play with him.

Jordan said the Olympic tournament might be the height of his career, something he dreamed about as a child.

Asked if the tough weeks of playing in Rio might affect his early season back with the Clippers, Jordan said his plan is to play as many games as he can.

"I am 28 years old, I am still a little young," Jordan said.

To which, Krzyzewski, 69, replied: "You are very young."

(Editing by Frank Pingue and Steve Keating)