LAS VEGAS – You’d think Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden would be sick of seeing each other by now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder trio have been going basically non-stop since the NBA season opened, grinding away through every milestone together just as they have throughout their NBA careers.
Nearly every prominent professional first, both good and bad, has come together. Their first taste of playoff success, their first trip to the Western Conference finals, their first appearance in The Finals and the fallout that comes with falling short on that grand stage.
That’s why their time on the U.S. Olympic team, and even their time here at USA Basketball training camp, isn’t something they’ll take for granted. While it can’t completely wipe away the sting of losing to the Heat in The Finals the way they did, Westbrook said, it’s at least a start on the road to redemption for the Thunder’s young core.
“Being here and having the opportunity to win a gold medal is one way to make my summer feel halfway decent,” he said. “But you always want to win a championship when you have the opportunity staring you in the face. And it’s great we get to be together all summer. We had a break from each other, for about two days. That was it. I’m used to seeing Kevin every summer and now James. So that’s great.”
The Thunder’s stars headline a group of newcomers to the Olympic experience who will fill in for Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, all of whom key parts to a gold medal-winning outfit in Beijing four years ago.
But they are walking into this experience with the full respect of their new teammates. You don’t win as much as they have the past two NBA season and amass as many honors as they have and still have teammates doubting your readiness for this competition.
Durant and Westbrook served notice two years ago in Turkey, helping the U.S. team to gold in the 2010 World Championship. They were basically locks for this team.
“Well first of all, this young man was born to play the game. He’s a coach’s dream,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said of Durant. “He has great character, he has great passion for the game. And then his skills are off the charts. He plays with such enthusiasm that it’s difficult to keep him off the floor and in the World Championships he just rose to another level.”
Westbrook is the perfect tonic for a team that won’t have Wade’s relentless approach on both ends of the floor to lean on this time around. The Heat star led the Beijing team in scoring and spearheaded their defense with his wicked ball pressure without starting a single game.
“I think (Russell) Westbrook gets D-Wade’s role for us,” Kobe Bryant said. “He pushes the ball and gets to the rim and can defend all over the floor. One thing D-Wade did for us was extend possessions for us and create steals that resulted in a lot of easy run-out baskets for us. Russell’s just as good at doing that.”
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski watched Westbrook work in The Finals and knew he was getting a different player this time around than the one he saw in Turkey.
“There isn’t a more explosive player. I love Russell and I think he’s a great player,” Krzyzewski said. “It baffles me how people can be so critical of him. He’s sensational. His ball pressure. His offensive rebounding. His athleticism is off the charts … it’s an honor to coach him. He is such a versatile player and as good an athlete as there is on this planet playing basketball. He plays with an abundance of energy and courage.”
Harden, however, had to edge out Eric Gordon for his spot on the team.
“I think he surprised people,” Colangelo said. “Two months ago he was on the radar screen, but not shining brightly necessarily. Given the opportunity, he finished so strongly this season, he gave us something to really sit back and think about. He has size, he has length at his position. Defensively, he’s more than adequate. He comes up with a lot of loose balls, a lot of steals and he is a scorer. And by the way, he can also shoot it. I think there’s a little bit of a difference between the two. Tough choice we had to make: Eric Gordon, James Harden. Harden deserved it for the reasons I mentioned and we expect him coming off the bench as he did and he’s accustomed to and to play whenever he’s called upon.”
Any concerns about Harden’s struggles in The Finals carrying over into this process were washed away with the work he put in when this team assembled for the start of camp last week, Krzyzewski said.
“He’s just performed on Broadway, in a hit show,” Krzyzewski said. “He had the pressure of performance under the most intense light, against the Mavericks and the Lakers and against San Antonio. And then to be in the [The Finals] … in a lot of those situations, he was the best player on the floor for certain periods of time. And he understand the role of coming off the bench. I think it’s a good choice for us. He earned it, while he’s here. But also with what he’s done.”
Now it’s about what has to be done for the Thunder’s tremendous trio. They still have a chance to walk away from their summer with the ultimate hardware, with an Olympic gold medal replacing that Larry O’Brien trophy they’ve already missed out on.
“It’s just an honor and a blessing to be on this team, to represent your country in the Olympics,” Durant said. “And to be able to do it with Russ and James makes it even better.”