The U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team has been together for two weeks. There were six exercises. The team played four exhibitions. A few roster changes have already been required and the Americans have no idea when three more players will join the team.
That’s probably not the formula for Olympic success, but ready or not, Tokyo is waiting.
“It’s a little different,” said US coach Gregg Popovich.
No, it’s very different. Unprecedented, really, just like almost everything else about these Tokyo Olympics, which start on Friday. The US – the three-time defending champion in men’s basketball – is leaving Las Vegas on Monday for the trip to Japan, where final preparations for the start of the Games in Tokyo will begin.
The plan is to complete four more trainings in Japan on July 25 before the Olympic game against France opens. The Americans have 12 names on their roster; only nine will be on the team for the trip to Japan as the other three – Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker – are still playing in the NBA finals.
“I think we are all better for the adversity we are going through because you either deal with it or not,” said Popovich. “You will find out. And these guys had to do that. You held your head up. There may be a disappointment here or there or an event that takes place, but they move on. And that’s what life is about. So it’s no different. “
The adversities have come in bundles for the Americans. During her two week stay in Las Vegas:
– Bradley Beal had to leave the team due to virus-related reasons and Kevin Love retired due to an injury.
– Jerami Grant was briefly on the health and safety logs related to the virus and missed a few days.
– Keldon Johnson was promoted from the Select Team (the players were moved to Las Vegas to train against the Olympians) to replace Beal and JaVale McGee was added to the list to replace Love. McGee was with the team for the show final against Spain on Sunday but has not played, which means that his first action with this team will take place during the actual Olympic competition.
– Oh, and the Americans lost to Nigeria and Australia, had to cancel the rematch against the Australians and for a short time only had six of the 12 Olympic team members available in the camp.
“We still won’t have those other three, but that won’t change right now,” said Popovich. “We just have to persevere and find ways to keep them in shape, even if we can’t do too much very well. So we have to find a common denominator for exactly this 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 play in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night. If Milwaukee wins this 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 to have at least one training session with the Americans before the France game.
If Phoenix forces game 7, it would be Thursday night, the day before the Tokyo opening ceremony, three days before the US-France game. A grueling playoff run is intimidating enough for the players; A grueling playoff run followed by a flight halfway around the world isn’t the recipe for fresh legs, so everyone’s guess is how effective Middleton, Holiday and Booker will be when they get to Japan.
Popovich doesn’t know what to expect.
“I have no idea. You know, I’m not trying to be sleek. I’m just totally transparent,” Popovich said. “We thought, ‘Are you going to be jet lagged? Will it be two days later after landing and they’ll be fine? ‘ … In a way, it might depend on everyone else being healthy. If not, they have to play. So we went through a lot of scenarios. We haven’t figured it out yet. that’s for sure.”
And this is a rarity, Popovich is at a loss for answers.
“He takes it very seriously,” said Johnson, who also plays for Popovich for Spurs.
The five-time NBA coach of San Antonio has teamed up with 11 different members of the Basketball Hall of Fame during his career. The Spurs won 60% of those games, a fancy way of saying that the best minds who have ever coached the game lose three out of five times when they go up against Popovich. He has a history of answers.
But when he goes to Tokyo, to the Olympics in the midst of a pandemic, with no fans and without a quarter of his squad, even he is still scratching his head. Plus, the U.S. kick off in Tokyo isn’t a child’s play – France is the team that ousted the U.S. from the medal battle at the 2019 World Basketball Championship in China, the tournament that made Popovich’s debut as head coach of the American program.
And Popovich, who usually does not reveal anything by mistake, said on Sunday evening that the Americans have been preparing for France “for two years,” a clear reference to what happened in China.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Popovich. “And we still have a week before we play, so although it won’t take long … I think it’s wonderful because we need that time. So hopefully we’ll keep improving and be ready as the week goes on,” play against a very good French team. “