The US Men’s Olympic Basketball Team has been together for two weeks. There have been six practices. The team played four exhibitions. A couple of roster changes have already been required and the Americans have no idea when three other players will join the team for the first time.
If that wasn’t enough shortly before their scheduled flight date on Monday, they found out that Zach LaVine has gone into health and safety protocols and would not be accompanying them on the flight to Tokyo.
All of that is probably not the formula for Olympic success, but ready or not, Tokyo waits.
“It’s a little different,” United States coach Gregg Popovich said.
Is not very different. Unprecedented, really, like pretty much everything else about these Tokyo Olympics that start on Friday. The United States, a three-time defending men’s basketball gold medalist, left Las Vegas on Monday for Japan, where it will arrive with final preparations for the start of the Tokyo Games.
The plan is to have four more practices in Japan before opening the Olympic game against France on July 25. Americans have 12 names on the list; Only eight will be with the team for the trip to Japan because three – Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker – are still playing in the NBA Finals and LaVine is on the protocols. There is hope that LaVine may join the team sometime in the not-too-distant future, but he was not cleared for Monday’s flight.
“I think we are all better for the adversity that we go through, because you either handle it or you don’t,” Popovich said. “You figured it out. And these guys have had to do that. They’ve held their heads high. There may be a disappointment here or there, or an event that takes place, but they move on. And that’s what life is all about. So this is no different. “
Adversity has come en masse for Americans. During your two week stay in Las Vegas:
– Bradley Beal was forced to leave the team for virus-related reasons and Kevin Love withdrew due to injury.
– Jerami Grant was briefly in health and safety protocols related to the virus and missed a few days.
– Keldon Johnson was promoted from the Select Team (the players brought to Las Vegas so they could practice against the Olympians) to replace Beal, and JaVale McGee was added to the roster to replace Love. McGee was with the team for Sunday’s exhibition final against Spain, but did not play, which means that his first action with this team will be during actual Olympic competition.
– Oh, and the Americans lost to Nigeria and Australia, they had to cancel the rematch against the Australians, and for a brief time only six of the 12 members of the Olympic team were available at the camp.
“We won’t have those other three yet, but at this point that’s not going to change,” Popovich said. “We just have to persevere and find ways to keep them fit even though we may not be able to execute very well. So, we will have to find common denominators for this exact group. Less is more, so to speak. Inventing the wheel would be the worst thing we can do for this group. “
Middleton, Holiday and Booker will play Tuesday night in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. If Milwaukee wins that game, the Bucks, with Middleton and Holiday, lead Booker and the Phoenix Suns 3-2 in that series, they would win the NBA title. That would also mean the trio could be in Japan over the weekend, giving time to join the Americans for at least one practice before the game against France.
If Phoenix forces Game 7, it would be Thursday night, the day before the opening ceremony in Tokyo, three days before the US-France game. A grueling playoff run is overwhelming enough for the players; A grueling playoff run followed by a flight to the other side of the world is not the recipe for fresh legs, so no one can guess how effective Middleton, Holiday and Booker will be when they arrive in Japan.
Popovich doesn’t know what to expect.
“I have no idea. You know, I’m not trying to be simplistic. I’m totally transparent,” Popovich said. “We thought, ‘Are they going to have jet lag? Is it going to be like two days after they land and they’ll be fine?’ … In a way, it could depend on whether everyone else is healthy. If not, they have to play. So we’ve gone through a lot of scenarios. We haven’t figured it out yet, that’s for sure. “
And that’s a rarity, Popovich has no answers.
“He takes it very seriously,” said Johnson, who also plays for Popovich with the Spurs.
The five-time NBA champion as coach of San Antonio has matched wits with 11 different members of the Basketball Hall of Fame in his career. The Spurs have won 60% of those games, a fancy way of saying that the best minds that have trained the game lose three out of five times they face Popovich. It has a history of having the answers.
But as he heads to Tokyo, for an Olympics in the middle of a pandemic, with no fans and a quarter of his roster, even he is still scratching his head. Plus, the USA’s first game in Tokyo is no piece of cake: France is the team that eliminated the USA from the medal contest at the 2019 Basketball World Cup in China, the tournament that saw Popovich’s debut as head coach of the American program.
And Popovich, who normally doesn’t reveal anything by accident, said Sunday night that Americans have been preparing for France “for two years,” a clear nod to what happened in China.
“We still have a long way to go,” Popovich said. “And we have another week before we play, so even though it’s not a long time… I think it’s wonderful because we need that time. So hopefully we continue to improve throughout the week and are ready to play against a very good French team. “