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'Keeping their word': Despite draining NBA Finals, three players committed to Team USA men's Olympic basketball

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TOKYO -- Roughly 24 hours before the U.S. men’s basketball team was set to open group play in the Olympics against France, it was waiting on the imminent arrival of three players it might need to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

It’s unclear how much Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker will actually play Sunday in a game that begins at 9 p.m. here (8 a.m. on the East Coast) given the emotional exhaustion from finishing the NBA Finals, the long travel from the United States, the lack of practice time and the jet lag that follows a trans-Pacific flight.

But for an American team that had a bumpy couple of weeks of preparation for the Olympics, the fact that all three actually got on the plane and should be able to contribute at least by the second game against Iran registers as a major relief.

Bucks forward Khris Middleton will play for Team USA in Tokyo after an exhausting run through the NBA Finals.
Bucks forward Khris Middleton will play for Team USA in Tokyo after an exhausting run through the NBA Finals.

“It’s not ideal, but I have a lot of respect for those guys for not only committing to do this but for keeping their word,” forward Draymond Green said. “We discussed at some point, ‘Man, who do you think is gonna drop out?’ The consensus among our group was nobody. One thing I can say is that’s a testament to who they are as men, as basketball players and as competitors.”

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If anyone on Team USA knows the toll a long playoff run can take both physically and mentally, it’s Green. As a member of the Golden State Warriors, he’s played in five NBA Finals, but even he never had to get on a plane 72 hours after the season ended, fly halfway around the world and gear back up for more pressure-packed basketball games.

Had Middleton or Holiday decided to bask in the glow of winning the NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks and enjoy that time with their families, it would have been perfectly understandable. Had Booker needed a few weeks to cope with the sting of the Phoenix Suns losing the Finals, it would have been easy to explain.

But the fact none of them changed their minds at the last minute?

“Very impressive,” Green said.

And also very necessary.

Though it’s unclear what kind of role head coach Gregg Popovich has them slotted for, this is not the deepest roster the U.S. has ever sent to an Olympics. Just a week ago, Kevin Love left to deal with an injury, Bradley Beal was disqualified because of a COVID-19 positive test and the U.S. had two more players in the health and safety protocols.

Both of them – Jerami Grant and Zach LaVine – are now back and ready to go. With the arrival of Booker, Holiday and Middleton, this will be as whole as the U.S. has been since this team was formed.

“We know they’re in shape. They’re probably tired,” said LaVine, who had to fly to Tokyo separately from the team once he cleared the contact-tracing protocols. “They went through a roller-coaster of emotions. Them coming over here shows how much they want to contribute.”

The U.S. won’t waste any time getting a gauge on where it’s at in this event. The French team, headlined by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, is considered one of the favorites to win a medal and finished third at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2019. Though the U.S. roster in that event is not the same one it brought to Tokyo, France knocked the Americans out of that event 89-79.

“The one thing we can’t ignore is their experience,” Green said. “But we always feel we are the best in the world and we try to prove that. The challenges we pose, no one else can.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Team USA Olympic men's basketball awaits three players from NBA Finals