Flight of antsy: Suns star and Bucks duo flip from NBA Finals foes to Olympic teammates

·5 min read

TOKYO — Devin Booker sat inside a devastated Phoenix Suns locker room Tuesday night, moments after losing a hard-fought, back-and-forth NBA Finals to Milwaukee in six games.

“Silent,” Booker described the scene. “Just a lot of emotion.”

It’s the kind of defeat that takes time to process, or even overcome. You get that close to the dream, and you never fully get over it.

Yet Booker didn't have much time to wallow. He’s due over here at the Olympics, ASAP. He’s set to be a major player for USA Basketball, who is heavily favored at -350 to win gold with BetMGM.

“I’ve got to get on a flight in a couple hours, I think,” Booker said Tuesday in Milwaukee. “Out to Tokyo.”

The flight may actually wait until later in the week, but it won’t change the strangeness factor. USA Basketball will have a private plane ready for not just Booker, but two of his Finals opponents — the Bucks' Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton — who will, no doubt, be in far better moods.

Essentially, after two weeks of battling for the biggest prize in professional basketball, the three have to immediately become teammates, and even share a transpacific flight together to chase the biggest prize in international basketball.

Suns star Devin Booker (left) is in for one awkward plane ride to Tokyo with the Bucks' Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, who just beat him in the NBA Finals. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Suns star Devin Booker (left) is in for one awkward plane ride to Tokyo with the Bucks' Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, who just beat him in the NBA Finals. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Booker will be mourning a loss. Holiday and Middleton will still be on a championship high. Any hard feelings will have to be worked out quickly. Each player is considered a pro’s pro and each has spoken about how powerful it will be to wear the red, white and blue. Booker dubbed it “a life goal of mine.”

“Representing your country is a whole different dynamic than competing against each other in the NBA Finals,” Booker said.

Sure … but still.

This is weird.

“I’m sure we won’t be best buddies during Team USA, but we’ll be teammates, for sure,” Middleton said. “We’ll be on the same path, talking basketball Xs and Os, trying to get the job done … I think we’ll be fine.”

As tough as this will be for Booker, it may be just as hard for the victors. Booker sounded eager to just keep playing, although whether that lasts remains to be seen. After the victory Holiday said he was just exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally.

“I think I'm just going to sleep,” Holiday said after his 46-minute, 12-point, 11-assist and nine-rebound effort in Game 6. “I've run around a lot in this series. I'm not going to lie. I'm going to sleep.”

As for the Olympics, he didn’t know what to say.

“I'm going to celebrate with my family and celebrate with my team and then I’ve got to get on another flight,” Holiday said. “That's a whole other story. That's something that you — yeah, I don't know … I'm like at a loss for words. I've got to celebrate this and then get on a flight and represent my country.”

This is a new situation in basketball. NBA players have been competing in the Olympics since the 1992 Dream Team. So opponents, even bitter rivals, have had to coexist — as they do in other international sports.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, for example, Golden State’s Draymond Green and Klay Thompson had to become teammates with Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving after Irving hit a decisive Game 7 shot to win the NBA title. There was well over a month between that and the start of the Olympics, though.

The 2020-21 NBA season started late due to COVID, which pushed the Finals back as well. Game 7 of the Finals, if necessary, is usually on Father’s Day in mid-June.

Team USA has its first game Sunday against France. So Booker, Middleton and Holiday are coming in hot — had the Finals gone to a Game 7, they would have actually played Thursday … and then left the next morning.

The Americans have had a rough run-up to the Olympics. They lost two exhibition games and had a key player, Bradley Beal, lost due to COVID safety protocols. In a bit of good news, Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine will be able to join the team after contact tracing.

There is talent on this USA squad — especially in Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard. Adding Booker, Middleton and Holiday, though, is huge as it seeks its fourth consecutive gold medal. These aren’t just skilled players, but heart and soul winners, as their Finals appearances and triumphs show.

So they’ll be counted on. Although Team USA coach Gregg Popovich, who has won five NBA titles as a head coach and is well schooled in how draining the Finals are, said they’ll be eased into the rotation. He isn’t bothering trying to make them study game plans or footage on the flight over.

“They’re going to sleep,” Popovich laughed.

Now they just have to get to Tokyo, hours after the biggest win or most gut-wrenching defeat of their lives.

They are three teammates now, all on a flight like no other.

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