He had just scored 40 points in the Milwaukee Bucks’ 109-103 win on Wednesday over the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals, and Khris Middleton was gassed.
Middleton played 43 minutes as Milwaukee tied the series at two games apiece entering Game 5 on Saturday in Phoenix.
His Milwaukee teammate Jrue Holiday, the former 76ers guard, played 42 minutes. Across the court, Phoenix star Devin Booker lit up the Bucks for 42 points in 38 minutes of playing time.
These three players will join the U.S. Olympic team after the NBA playoffs. Game 6 is scheduled for July 20. If a Game 7 is needed, that will be July 22. Whenever the series ends, the three will jet to Tokyo to join the U.S. team, which will open play July 25 against France.
The late arrival of this trio is only one of the problems the U.S. faces.
The U.S. team is missing Friday’s game against Australia “out of an abundance of caution” and must replace one of its top players, Washington Wizards sniper Bradley Beal, who is out because of health and safety protocols. It was announced Thursday that he will miss the Olympics.
On Friday, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love announced he was withdrawing from the team, citing an ongoing recovery from a calf injury.
JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson were named to replace Beal and Love.
McGee averaged 7.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in 14.7 minutes as a big man off the bench for the Cavs and Denver Nuggets this season. Johnson a San Antonio Spurs forward, was elevated from the USA Select Team roster. He averaged 12.8 points and six rebounds in his second NBA season.
In addition, the team has to get into actual basketball shape once again, while having to fight off the fatigue of a long NBA season.
This won’t be an easy path.
Getting the trio up to speed
A big key will be incorporating Middleton, Holiday and Booker when all three will miss most of, if not all of the Team USA pretournament camp and the exhibition schedule.
And when they come, what version will we see?
“Everybody is tired, everybody is banged up, you got to give it your all, on the court,” Middleton said in a postgame Zoom interview on Wednesday. “Get rest and sleep and get treatment after the game.”
Does this sound like somebody who will be refreshed for his Olympic experience?
Despite the grind of reaching the NBA Finals, Middleton’s Olympic coach is expecting the trio to be ready to go.
“They are not going to be able to sit for a week and get ready,” said Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs and U.S. Olympic head coach. “They are going to have to come in and play.”
Since settling for the bronze medal in 2004 with a team guided by former Sixers coach Larry Brown, the U.S. has won consecutive gold medals in 2008, 2012 and 2016 to once again flex its muscles worldwide.
This year’s team will face a variety of challenges, the biggest being having enough healthy, non-fatigued bodies.
The world didn’t come apart when the U.S. lost its first two exhibition games in Las Vegas, by 90-87 to Nigeria last Saturday and 91-83 to Australia on Monday.
Not yet, at least.
The U.S. finally earned its first exhibition win with a 108-80 victory over Argentina on Tuesday.
Yes, the U.S. roster of NBA royalty had many players who had to compete in the condensed 72-game regular-season schedule. For instance, the Sixers’ final 36 regular-season games were played in 67 days.
Yet the U.S. is facing teams with NBA players who also had to go through that grind. As an example, the long season hasn’t seemed to adversely impact Sixers defensive wizard Matisse Thybulle, who has been a disrupter playing for Australia while also playing some pretty effective offense.
In his first exhibition game, an 87-84 win over Argentina, Thybulle had 15 points, shooting 6-for-9, including 3-for-3 from three, and added three blocks and four steals. Then in the 91-83 win over the U.S. he had 12 points, shooting 5-for-7 and 2-for-3 with two blocks and three steals.
Thybulle only played 14 minutes in a 108-69 rout of Nigeria.
The U.S. team has not only faced the fatigue issue, but even though the NBA season ended last month for a number of players, they still also had to get back to playing an NBA-like pace.
“The first priority is we have to get back in shape,” Popovich said after the rout of Argentina.
He understands that he can’t run these players into the ground, but he also must make them run.
“We will continue to work hard like we need to, but it will be efficient,” Popovich said.
A big loss in Beal
Player availability will determine the success of any team.
In addition to the loss of Beal, USA Basketball announced former Sixers forward Jerami Grant of the Detroit Pistons was placed on health and safety protocols “out of an abundance of caution.”
Friday’s exhibition game with Australia was also canceled because of “an abundance of caution.”
“Bradley no doubt is a huge loss and was playing very well, understanding everything and fitting in well with the group,” Popovich said. “There is no next Bradley Beal.”
The Inquirer reported that the U.S. men’s basketball team inquired Thursday about Sixers forward Tobias Harris’ availability to replace Beal.
While not as big a loss as Beal, not having Love takes away a frontcourt perimeter threat.
On Friday evening USA Basketball announced that San Antonio guard Keldon Johnson and Denver center JaVale McGee have replaced Beal and Love.
Despite all the negatives for the U.S., nothing beats having talent. Any team with headliners such as Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and Portland’s Damian Lillard (whom Sixers fans wouldn’t mind seeing change uniforms) can’t play the underdog card too much.
Despite all the adversity, Chicago Bulls All-Star guard Zach LaVine said on Friday he has no concern about the team.
“I think we are the best basketball players in the world and we’re able to compete and do things in certain circumstances,” LaVine said. “We got to go out here and get the job done regardless. I don’t think anybody is going to feel bad for us and try to take it easy. It’s just what it is and we got to go out and get a W.”
Still, the fact that the U.S. will rely heavily on three players who are laying it on the line in the NBA Finals and will have to get a second wind — and already lost Beal — shows that there is little margin for error.
The two early losses aside, the U.S. has what it takes to win, but more has to go right than in the previous three Olympics.