LAS VEGAS (AP) — The U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team has been together for two weeks. There have been six practices. The team played four exhibitions. A pair of roster changes have already been required and the Americans have no idea when three other players will join the team.
That’s probably not the formula for Olympic success, but ready or not, Tokyo awaits.
“It’s a little bit different,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said.
No, it’s a lot different. Unprecedented, really, just like almost everything else about these Tokyo Olympics that start on Friday. The U.S. — the three-time defending men’s basketball gold medalists — leaves Las Vegas on Monday for the trip to Japan, where it’ll commence final preparations for the start of the Tokyo Games.
The plan is to have four more practices in Japan before opening Olympic play against France on July 25. The Americans have 12 names on the roster; only nine will be with the team for the trip to Japan because the other three — Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker — are still playing in the NBA Finals.
“I think all of us are better for the adversity we go through, because you either handle it or you don’t,” Popovich said. “You figure it out. And these guys have had to do that. They’ve kept their heads up. There might be a disappointment here or there, or an event that takes place, but they move on. And that’s what life’s all about. So, this is no different.”
The adversity has come in bunches for the Americans. During their two-week stay in Las Vegas:
• radley Beal was forced to leave the team for virus-related reasons and Kevin Love backed out because of an injury.
• erami Grant was briefly in the health and safety protocols related to the virus and missed a few days.
• eldon 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 finale against Spain but did not play, meaning his first action with this team will be during actual Olympic competition.
• he Americans lost to Nigeria and Australia, had to cancel the rematch against the Australians, and for a while had only six of the 12 Olympic team members available in camp.
Middleton, Holiday and Booker will play tonight in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. If Milwaukee wins that game and the title, the trio could be in Japan by the weekend.
giving time to join the Americans for at least one practice in advance of 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 U.S.-France game. A grueling playoff run is daunting enough on players; a grueling playoff run followed by a flight halfway around the world is not the recipe for fresh legs, so it’s anyone’s guess 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 glib. I’m just totally transparent,” Popovich said. “We’ve thought about, ‘Are they going to have jet lag? Is it going to be like two days later after they land and they’ll be OK?’ ... In some ways, it might depend on if everybody else is healthy. If they’re not, they’ve got to play. So, we’ve gone over lots of scenarios. We haven’t figured it out yet, that’s for sure.”
And that’s a rarity, Popovich being at a loss for answers.
“He takes it very seriously,” said Johnson, who also plays for Popovich with the Spurs.
The five-time NBA champion as San Antonio’s coach 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 to ever coach the game lose three of every five times they face Popovich. He has a history of having the answers.
But as he heads to Tokyo, for an Olympics amid a pandemic, without fans and without one-quarter of his roster, even he’s still scratching his head. Plus, the U.S. opener in Tokyo is no cakewalk — France is the team that ousted the U.S. from medal contention at the 2019 Basketball World Cup in China, the tournament that was Popovich’s debut as the head coach of the American program.
And Popovich, who typically doesn’t reveal anything by accident, said Sunday night that the 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’ve got another week before we play, so, although that’s not a long time ... I think it’s wonderful because we need that time. So, hopefully we’ll continue to improve during the week, and be ready to play a very good French team.”
LILLARD, JOHNSON PROVIDE SPARK
Johnson keyed a huge third-quarter run to help the U.S. beat Spain.
Damian Lillard scored 19 points and Johnson added 15 in an 83-76 victory Sunday night in the final pre-Olympic game for both teams before they head to Tokyo.
Johnson had been one of the young players training against the Americans, and had appeared in two exhibition games. The San Antonio forward/guard was added to the Olympic squad Friday after Bradley Beal tested positive for the coronavirus and Kevin Love withdrew because of a calf injury. The U.S. also added JaVale McGee, who didn’t play.
“Keldon Johnson played a really solid basketball game. made cuts to the bucket,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “When he did go to the bucket he was very physical. Very solid in half-court defense. He had a very, very good night.”
This was the U.S. team’s fourth exhibition in eight days in Las Vegas. The Americans were supposed to have a fifth against Australia on Friday, but that was canceled out of caution because of the coronavirus issues the Americans were dealing with.
The two top-ranked team in the world struggled early on with Spain missing its first six shots before finally getting a basket 4:35 into the game.
Despite the slow start the Spaniards led 18-14 after one. They extended the lead to 38-36 at the half. Lillard and Durant each had 11 points at the half. The two combined to go 7 for 16 from the field while the rest of the U.S. squad was 5 of 19. Ricky Rubio had 14 points at the half for Spain.
“The defense was pretty solid. we couldn’t make a shot, but they didn’t let up defensively,” Popovich said. “Kept their focus in that regard which will be important.”
Trailing 46-42 in the third quarter, the U.S. finally got going. The Americans scored the first 11 points during a 23-6 run that spanned the final two quarters. Johnson had eight points during the game-changing spurt. His dunk midway through the burst brought the crowd to life.
“I’m out here to be that energy guy, bring life to the team whenever you need it,” Johnson said. “The third quarter we needed a spark. not saying because I got a couple of buckets. On the defense end, trying to bring some kind of energy or spark so we can get over the hump.”
Spain only had one field goal in the final 5:44 of the quarter and was down 57-50 heading into the fourth quarter.
The U.S. kept the burst going to start the fourth and led 65-52 on Jayson Tatum’s reverse layup with 7:30 left. Spain could get no closer than eight the rest of the way.
Rubio finished with 23 points,
While the U.S. had struggled at times in Las Vegas, Rubio, who has played internationally for years, thinks they’ll figure it out.
“It’s the first time they are playing together, it takes time,” he said. “They are dangerous if they play as a team.”