MILWAUKEE – The three NBA stars have spent the past two weeks studying each other from afar. Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton, Bucks guard Jrue Holiday and Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker have also spent that time avoiding each other up close.
“Right now,” Middleton said, “we haven’t said a word to each other.”
That’s because the Bucks and the Suns have competed in the NBA Finals in the past two weeks. They will play in a potentially decisive Game 6 in Milwaukee on Tuesday that could end with the Bucks winning their first NBA championship since 1971. If not, the Suns and Bucks will play in a Game 7 on Thursday in Phoenix.
But after that, the relationship between Middleton, Holiday and Booker will soon change. They will morph from Finals opponents into Team USA teammates. Once the Finals ends either Tuesday or Thursday, Middleton, Holiday and Booker will join the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team for the Tokyo Games.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Middleton said. “I’m sure we won’t be best buddies during Team USA, but we’ll be teammates, for sure. We’ll be on the same path, talking basketball X’s and O’s, trying to get the job done.”
All three players have excelled at getting the job done in the Finals.
Middleton has become a dependable second option behind Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo by averaging 25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Though he has struggled with his shooting in Game 1 (4-of-14), Game 2 (7-of-21) and Game 4 (4-of-20), Holiday had bounce-back performances in Game 3 (8-of-14) and Game 5 (12-of-20). Holiday also stole the ball from Booker on a potential game-winning drive in Game 5. Aside from that play and a sluggish Game 3 (3-of-14), Booker has posted two consecutive 40-point performances.
“A lot of fun. Only basketball that I’ve been wanting to play for a really long time,” Booker said. “So I’m having a lot of fun with it, competing at the highest level that basketball has known.”
How will those dynamics play out once they are wearing the same Team USA uniform?
“It’s never personal between who you’re going with, unless lines are crossed,” Booker said. “Those guys aren’t that type and I would never go that way with them, because there’s a high respect level for each other. I think that’s why we’re in the position that we’re in right now. Representing your country is a whole different dynamic than competing against each other in the NBA Finals, but I can always respect somebody that competes at the highest level.”
Because all three of those players have those qualities, it is not surprising Middleton, Holiday and Booker were selected for the U.S. Olympic team. It might be surprising, however, that they accepted the invitation.
After all, the NBA had a compressed 72-game season only 71 days after the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 NBA title in a campus bubble. The U.S. Olympic team will begin preliminary play against France on Sunday followed with games against Iran (July 28) and the Czech Republic (July 31). That gives Middleton, Holiday and Booker between three to five days to fly to Tokyo and prepare for Team USA’s first game, depending on when the NBA Finals ends.
“I felt like I just wasn’t going to stop playing. Just continue playing basketball, which is what I love to do,” Holiday said. “Not having a break and just feeling like, ‘Well, we’re in the Finals, why not just continue playing basketball.”
REPLACEMENT PLAYERS:JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson being added to Team USA men’s basketball roster
Therefore, Booker said he will fly on the “next thing smoking” to Tokyo as soon as the NBA Finals ends. The 24-year-old Booker considered it “very important” and a “a life goal of mine” to play on the U.S. Olympic team. He also argued that the Olympics are “the most prestigious event that basketball can find.”
Booker crystallized that thought after talking with Suns coach Monty Williams, who became a Team USA assistant coach for the 2016 Rio Games.
“I talked to him about the privilege of being in that group,” Williams said, “and how cool it was to be the last team standing and have your country’s anthem being played.”
Middleton and Holiday did not extend the same courtesy to Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.
“They both went rogue,” Budenholzer said. “They completely iced me out of the decision. Probably smart on their part. And I’m unfortunately serious.”
Nonetheless, Budenholzer smiled after sharing his honesty about being out of the loop.
“Those guys could figure it out on their own,” Budenholzer said. “Excited for them and their opportunity. Obviously, a little more interested that their focus is right here with us now, but they’re built to handle all this.”
After all, Middleton maintained “it wasn’t that difficult” about committing to the Tokyo Olympics amid his desire to represent his country and compete for a gold medal. Same thing for Holiday, whose wife, Lauren, won two gold medals with the U.S. women’s soccer team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. But what about the condensed schedule?
“It doesn’t bother me at all. I love basketball. I love playing it,” Middleton said. “During the offseason, it’s hard for me to take a couple weeks off, because I want to be back in the gym doing something, working on my game. And one advantage of it is, I don’t have to get back in shape.”
They will have to fit in quickly, though. Team USA went 2-2 in exhibition play, including losses to Nigeria and Australia. It also lost three players, including Kevin Love (injury), Bradley Beal (health and safety protocols) and Zach LaVine (health and safety protocols).
First things first. Before they worry about integrating on a new squad as teammates, Middleton, Holiday and Booker maintain they are more worried about a specific set of hardware.
“Win the Championship, and just go from there,” Holiday said. “I feel like the goal for us and one of the dreams for me since I was a little kid was winning an NBA Championship. That’s the main focus.”