The United States
Olympic men's basketball
team has been together for two weeks, with six practices and four exhibition games. A pair of roster changes have already occurred, and the Americans are unsure when three other players will join the team for the first time
As if that wasn't enough, they found out shortly before their flight to Tokyo on Monday that Zach LaVine
had entered the health
and safety protocols and would not be joining them.
All of this is unlikely to lead to Olympic success, but Tokyo awaits, ready or not.
“It’s a little different,” said United States coach Gregg Popovich.
No, it's a lot different. In fact, it's unprecedented, just like almost everything else about the Tokyo Olympics
, which begin on Friday. The United States — the three-time defending men's basketball gold medalist — was leaving Las Vegas
on Monday for the trip to Japan
, where it'll begin final preparations for the start of the Tokyo Games
The Americans have 12 names on the roster; only eight will be with the team for the trip to Japan because three — Khrue Middleton, Jrue Holiday
, and Devin Booker
— are still playing in the NBA Finals
, and LaVine is in the protocols.
“I think all of us are better for the adversity we face, because you either handle it or you don’t,” Popovich said. “You figure it out. And these guys have had to do that. They’ve kept their heads up. There might be a disappointment here or there, or an event that happens, but they move on. And that’s what life is all about. So, this is no different.”
During the Americans' two-week stay in Las Vegas, they faced a slew of challenges, including:
Beal had to leave the team due to a virus, and Kevin Love had to withdraw due to an injury
Jerami Grant was briefly involved in virus-related health and safety protocols and missed a few days as a result.
Keldon Johnson was promoted from the Select Team (players brought to Las Vegas to practice against Olympians
), and JaVale McGee was added to the roster to replace Love. McGee was with the team for Sunday's exhibition finale against Spain
but did not play, meaning his first action with this team will be during actual Olympic competition.
Oh, and the Americans lost to Nigeria and Australia
, had to cancel the rematch against the Australians, and had only six of the twelve Olympic team members available in camp for a brief period of time.
“We still won’t have those other three, but that’s not going to change,” Popovich said. “We just have to persevere and find ways to keep them in shape even though we won’t be able to execute too much very well. So, we’re going to have to figure out common denominators for this exact group. Less is more, so to speak.
Middleton, Holiday, and Booker will all play in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night. If the Bucks win that game — the Bucks, with Middleton and Holiday, lead Booker and the Phoenix Suns
3-2 in that series — they will win the NBA title. The trio could also be in Japan by the weekend, giving them time to join the Americans for at least one practice before the game against France
If Phoenix forces Game 7, it will be on Thursday night, the day before the opening ceremony
in Tokyo and three days before the United States-France game. A grueling playoff run is difficult enough on players; a grueling playoff run followed by a flight halfway around the world is not a recipe for fresh legs, so it's anyone's guess how effective Middleton, Holiday, and Booker will be when they arrive in Japan.
Popovich is at a loss for words.
“I have no idea. You know, I'm not trying to be glib. I'm just completely transparent,” Popovich said. “We've thought about, ‘Are they going to have jet lag? Is it going to be like two days later after they land and they'll be OK?’... In some ways, it might depend on if everybody else is healthy. If they're not, they've got to play.
Popovich being stumped for answers is a rare occurrence.
“He takes it very seriously,” said Johnson, a Spurs player who also works for Popovich.
In his five-year tenure
as San Antonio
's coach, Popovich has faced 11 different members of the Basketball Hall of Fame
, and the Spurs have won 60% of those games, which means that the best minds to ever coach the game lose three out of every five times they face Popovich.
But, as he prepares to head to Tokyo for the Olympics
in the midst of a pandemic
, without fans
and without one-quarter of his roster, even he is perplexed. Plus, the U.S. opener in Tokyo is no walk in the park — France is the team that eliminated the United States from medal contention at the 2019 Basketball World Cup in China
, Popovich's first tournament as head coach of the American program.
And, in a clear reference to what happened in China, Popovich said Sunday night that the Americans have been preparing for France for "two years."
“We still have a long way to go,” Popovich said, “and we have another week before we play, so, although that’s not a long time... I think it’s wonderful because we need that time, so hopefully we’ll continue to improve during the week and be ready to play a very good French team.”
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