"I'm sure we won't be best buddies during Team USA, but we'll be teammates, for sure. We'll be on the same path," Khris Middleton told reporters

By Adam Carlson
July 22, 2021 04:24 AM
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Booker Middleton
Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks looks to pass around the Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker in the second half of game five of the NBA Finals, on July 17.

Perhaps only in Olympic basketball do rivals then turn — nearly instantly — into teammates: That's the case at least for Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker and the Milwaukee Bucks' Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, who just finished playing in the NBA Finals and are jetting off to Japan.

This weekend, they'll compete together in Team USA's first men's basketball game, against France, in the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

An NBA season scrambled by COVID-19 meant there was very little downtime after the playoffs which meant very little time for the entire team to practice together in the final days before the Olympics.

It'll all be just fine, they say.

"There's not a whole lot you can do when they get here the day before. It's pretty obvious that they won't know everything that's been going on, but luckily it's basketball," coach Gregg Popovich told reporters on Thursday. "We'll try to keep it simple and just take care of what we think we can take care of."

Popovich, 72, added, "The good thing is they'll be in shape. I don't know how the plane's gonna affect them, that's not an easy flight. It is true that they won't be as ready to play in the sense of execution that we might want, but that's understandable."

The San Antonio Spurs coach acknowledged that the addition of the Bucks and Suns players was "something like that is pretty unique. There's no paradigm or game plan or rulebook for something like that."

"It's something we'll discuss the rest of the week and just do what we think is best, probably make some changes and see what's going on in the game — that'll help dictate how much or how little we want to use them," Popovich said. "So it'll be an interesting situation for sure."

Kevin Durant, a two-time gold medalist and the team's anchor, likewise told reporters: "I think there's definitely going to be an adjustment, you know, just a quick turnaround. But those guys knew what they were getting themselves into when they committed to it a few weeks back."

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Kevin Durant
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As for the question of switching from playing against one another to now playing together, Popovich said: "Chemistry is something that we hope forms quickly. These guys get along very well, they know each other. They haven't played together, but they know each other and they're very happy to be here. They've sacrificed a lot under the circumstances to do this. The chemistry builds day by day — you can't force that issue, it just happens organically."

Middleton recently told the press of working with Booker: "I think we'll be fine. I'm sure we won't be best buddies during Team USA, but we'll be teammates, for sure. We'll be on the same path, talking basketball X's and O's, trying to get the job done."

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Booker agreed, saying, "Representing your country is a whole different dynamic than competing against each other in the NBA Finals, but I can always respect somebody that competes at the highest level."

There is certainly still work to be done: The team that has for decades dominated men's Olympic basketball lost two recent exhibition games, in unusual fashion. Durant compared it to "a punch in the mouth early on to remind us that it's not gonna be a cakewalk."

"I feel like we're understanding what coach wants from us on both ends of the floor. I feel like guys are getting more comfortable with each other and their roles on the team, and that's only going to bode well for us as we start to play real games. ... So many people are used to Team USA coming in and blowing everybody out, so it was good for us to see that," Durant said of how the team was reacting to the defeat. "Now, hopefully, those are the last losses."

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 23rd and the Tokyo Paralympics beginning August 24th on NBC.