Just days after the NBA Finals ended and the Bucks vanquished the Suns in six games, Devin Booker of Phoenix and Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton of Milwaukee have united on the same side, joining the U.S. men’s basketball squad at the Tokyo Olympics.
Team USA opens tournament play Sunday against France. The gold medal game is slated for Aug. 8.
Booker, who said early in the Finals that for him the Olympics were “the next thing smoking,” was on a flight to Japan mere hours after the Bucks wrapped up their first NBA title in 50 years. The Suns still haven’t won a title in their 53-season history.
It was a quick turnaround for all three players, who were on the same flight.
“We were in the middle of a championship run,” Middleton said late in the series. “To take a second to think about something outside of this season was a little tough. But it was an easy decision for me to go ahead and commit.”
Coach Gregg Popovich is glad to have the trio on the 12-man roster. His squad was in disarray coming out of a two-week camp in Las Vegas. The U.S. dropped its first two exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia, finally defeating Argentina and Spain before leaving for Tokyo this week.
Asked if he had a videotape for the incoming trio to view when they joined the team, Popovich said simply, “No, they’re going to sleep.”
It has been far from smooth for the defending Olympic champions, as Kevin Love dropped off the roster, saying he wasn’t at “peak performance.” He’s still recovering from a right calf injury, which caused him to miss 47 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers this past season, and was replaced by JaVale McGee. Bradley Beal, Jerami Grant and Zach LaVine have all tested positive for COVID-19. Beal has been replaced by Keldon Johnson, while Grant and LaVine are now available.
Popovich is trying to bring his success as coach of the five-time NBA title-winning San Antonio Spurs to the Olympics, having taken over for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who led Team USA to three Olympic gold medals in a row. Pop will have his work cut out for him.
Only two players, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, are holdovers from the team that won gold during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro by defeating Serbia, 96-66.
Other NBA stars, such as LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, opted out because of injury or just plain fatigue after two seasons heavily impacted by rules and protocols established as the coronavirus spread around the world. Paul, for one, missed the first two games of the Suns’ Western Conference Finals series win over the Los Angeles Clippers because he tested positive for COVID.
The Olympics, already delayed a year, will be overshadowed by the pandemic, with Tokyo in a state of emergency and no fans in the stands as cases surge. As of Thursday, only 23.2% of the Japanese people have been vaccinated as compared to 49.5% in the U.S., according to stats compiled by a daily worldwide COVID-19 tracker.
The 72-game NBA regular season was plagued by COVID infections and game postponements before a variety of vaccines became widely available.
Because of all that, as of mid-June, Team USA had yet to pick a squad. Jerry Colangelo, the outgoing managing director of USA Basketball, told Sportico at the time: “COVID did a number on a lot of things, including our preparation for the Olympics. Because of the length of the playoffs we have little time in between.”
How much Booker, Holiday and Middleton have left after tough, four-round playoff runs is still be determined. But Durant said he is excited for their arrival.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” said Durant, whose Brooklyn Nets lost in overtime to Milwaukee in Game 7 of the second round. “We’re adding two champions and another guy who’s been on that stage and knows what winning big games is all about. Adding three guys with such high basketball IQs to the team is going to help.”
Booker had his nose broken in Game 2 of the West Finals in a collision with Patrick Beverly of the Clippers and his play has been spotty since. He wore a clear mask for much of the rest of that series, which the Suns won in six games.
But Holiday tenaciously guarded Booker for much of the Finals. Booker had 10 points in Game 3 and only 19 in the finale, sparking some criticism.
“I just want to play winning basketball at all times,” Booker said after the last game. “I don’t really care what people think of me or what they say about my game. They haven’t walked in these shoes and experienced what we just went through.”
It’s no wonder, though, that Popovich is trying to figure out at this point how to put the team together. He has only a few days.
“We haven’t made any decisions on lineups,” Popovich said. “We’ve got three guys coming in who haven’t been here. Luckily it’s basketball. We’re trying to keep it simple, take care of what we think we can take of. These guys haven’t played together, but they know each other very well. The chemistry builds day by day. You can’t force that issue. It just happens organically.”
Or not at all.