The U.S. men’s national team has been together for roughly two weeks and has already faced obstacles in their chase for gold in Tokyo. From playing basketball amid a pandemic — in a city that has seen its COVID-19 cases rise dramatically — to the increased talent and comraderie of their opponents, Team USA knows it isn’t going to be easy and Kevin Durant acknowledges that.
Team USA got its first taste of the challenge ahead in the exhibition round, going .500 with two wins over Argentina and Spain to go with two opening losses to Nigeria and Australia. Those games in Las Vegas resonated with the group and now that they’re settled in Tokyo, Durant has a growing understanding of the Olympic landscape and is glad the “punch in the mouth” came when the games didn’t count.
“I feel like we’re understanding what coach wants for 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 go well for us when we start to play real games. It was good to get a punch in the mouth early on to remind us it isn’t going to be a cakewalk. So many people are used to Team USA coming in and blowing everyone out. It was good for us to see that and hopefully, those are the last losses,” said Durant after Team USA practice in Tokyo, which took place roughly at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning back in New York.
The chemistry is forming and the comraderie is growing. To sweeten things, reinforcements are on the way for their 12-man roster. Zach LaVine, who was a standout in the exhibition stage for Team USA, will join the team in Tokyo Thursday afternoon after clearing health and safety protocols.
Devin Booker and newly crowned champions Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday will be flying to Tokyo now that the NBA Finals have concluded, but their conditioning after a daylong trip remains in question. Not to mention a grueling post-season.
“It’s definitely going to be an adjustment. Just a quick turnaround but those guys knew what they were getting into when they committed to this a few weeks back. Most of the guys committed during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals so it’s been a few weeks of them understanding what this journey is and a couple of extra weeks added on your postseason now,” Durant explained. “We are looking forward to those guys coming. We understand that it’ll take a while to get their legs back under them and come down that high from the Finals. We look forward to incorporating them but can’t wait to have them around.
“Look forward to the challenge and adding three guys; two newly crowned champions, another guy who’s been on that stage and knows all about winning and playing in big games. Add that IQ. Three of those guys with big IQ so adding that to our team will help,” Durant added.
There’s no secret Team USA will have to depend on veteran leadership to help guide the ship through the tournament. Durant — the most decorated U.S Olympian on the roster — has served that role in the exhibitions while showing consistency on the court. In addition, Damian Lillard noted how he and Durant will have “significant roles” for the men’s national team.
The 32-year-old explained just how that leadership works for the 12-man group. Although player’ leadership, especially the FIBA experienced, is important, Gregg Popovich is the boss.
“Just through my actions and just going through every rep as hard as I can. If I see something, I try to tell my teammates about it and have open communication with everybody, every coach, every player,” Durant said. “That’s always been the approach for me and I think that works the best for me individually. I know guys bring their own different styles of leadership to the team and all of it is needed. We have guys who have been through and experienced so much in this league, so the more we can communicate with each other the better,”
“For the most part, Coach Pop is our leader. We follow him and the players fall in line after that and come in and work extremely hard every day. That’s really what it is here.”
Then comes the foreseeable, if still staggering, challenge of playing in an Olympics marked by a pandemic. Tokyo has seen consistent spikes in COVID-19 cases the last several weeks. It appears everyone made it to Japan healthy and Durant provided high praise to USA Basketball for their efforts to keep its players as safe as possible ahead of the Olympic games. Dr. Riley J. Williams III, the Nets medical director, is Team USA’s doctor.
“The difference is the city that we’re in and some of the players, but I think the overall game itself is going to be what it is similar to the last few times. I don’t think it was difficult getting over here. USA basketball has made this experience so easy for all of us, especially throughout the circumstances of COVID in Japan where cases have risen. USA Basketball is keeping us as safe as they could, providing us with the best places to stay, best food. It’s been amazing so far,” Durant said.
Looking ahead, Team USA opens their chase for gold against France on Sunday morning. In Durant’s words, France is a “well-oiled machine” built on common history and chemistry — qualities the U.S men’s national team doesn’t inhabit.
“France is a well-oiled machine and been playing together since they were kids. They know each other and a lot of NBA players on that team. We are focusing on ourselves and see how we can do. It’s all about us but we understand how talented these teams are and how good their chemistry is.”