Athletes in individual Olympic sports deal with it all the time. Competing against an opponent incessantly, in endless pre-Olympic trials, only to be paired with them at the eventual Games under a single unifying flag. For athletes in team sports — especially those that are nationally televised, endlessly talked about, and compensated with millions of dollars in year wages? It's a different, weirder, story. It's the story of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as they attempt to get past the fact that fellow Team USA mate LeBron James' Heat dismantled their Oklahoma City Thunder in last month's NBA Finals.
[ Photos: Team USA training camp ]
It was barely last month, you'll recall. Less than three weeks ago, in a quick five-game summation that seemed like it birthed enough storylines for a 50-game series. Durant and Westbrook played well in defeat, to be absolutely sure, but James finally seemed to revel in the big stage, averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists while winning the Finals' MVP. And Durant, to his credit, is fine with admitting that he's just not used to seeing his former opponent every day while he preps for practice, and that it does bother him. From the Associated Press:
''It does. It does, but what can I do?'' Durant said Tuesday. ''He's my teammate now. I'm a team player. I can't let that affect this. This is bigger than that. It's tough to lose in the finals and play the guy you've been going up against for five games who beat you. So me, I'm just going to get over it, still be a great teammate, come out and play hard.''
He's not in unfamiliar territory, despite the uneasiness. Gary Payton had to co-exist with Scottie Pippen during the 1996 Olympics, and Clyde Drexler had to work against his tormenter in Michael Jordan along with Pippen during the 1992 Games. That history doesn't make it any easier, though, as even the notoriously competitive Kobe Bryant — who took to Team USA in 2008 just weeks after losing in the Finals to Boston -- can attest:
''But then again, I wasn't playing on the Olympic team with, you know, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce and Garnett,'' Bryant said. ''He's got to look at LeBron every day. I didn't have to do that. So I don't know if I could do that. I'd probably be trying to destroy him every single day in practice to try to, I don't know, take a little of the edge off maybe." [...]
''Being the friends thing, I mean that's fine,'' Bryant said. ''Once you start playing, I'd really, I'd have to go after him. There's just no way.''
That's Kobe, though.
Because some would suggest that this would be counterproductive. While it would be fantastic to pit Durant and James against each other as they take to improving their still-developing games, and though Team USA is the odds-on favorite to follow up a series of blowouts with yet another gold medal win, a lineup featuring James and Durant working off of each other might result in the most potent attack Team USA could put together in the half-court.
Think about. Durant sets a screen on James' man while LeBron handles the ball. Who do you leave, for that split second? The Mack Truck with Magic-like handles, or the 6-11 guy that can stroke it all the way out to half court?
James, in talking to the Associated Press' Brian Mahoney, isn't even going to pretend to be unaware of all this:
''It bothers him,'' James said. ''I bet it bothers him and (Russell) Westbrook, you know, they probably don't want to hear about it. It would bother me, it would bother anyone that you lose to someone in the finals, where everyone's competing at the highest level and you want to win and then you have to team up with them not too long, not too far removed from the games." [...]
''It is tough man, because we just come off a great Finals,'' James said. ''Our matchup was one of the most profiled matchups in league history, so it's tough. But at the same time, we understand what we're here for. We're going to use our talents, we're going to use what we know we can do to try to help this team win gold.''
James brings up a point worth reflecting on.
The Finals started on June 12 and ended on June 21, but between the hype, fantastic play, and four close contests out of the five played, the whole affair seemed much larger than that nine-day term. There is strong consensus that unless something goes terribly wrong, this will be our go-to NBA Finals matchup for years to come, sound analysis considering Miami's overwhelming talent and OKC's depth and relatively young age. So though the teams only played each other seven times this year in total, counting the regular season, the pressure and promotion behind the pairing almost suggests that Durant and LeBron have been duking it out for ages.
We just hope that Durant — The Defeated, for now — isn't weary of the whole ordeal. Going from zero to 66 in an NBA season like 2011-12, then through the playoffs and Finals and almost straight to Team USA practice followed by the Olympics is no easy task. We'd reference only Michael Jordan as the only superhuman crazy enough to keep his competitive streak up following such a turn, but we remember that burnout like this caused him to retire from the game of basketball just 14 months after winning gold in Barcelona.
Just another thing to consider, while we celebrate the fact that Duke and Butler's finest won't be playing in this year's Olympics.
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