CHICAGO – After 12 days of upheaval, hand-wringing, rest and re-commitment, Team USA went back to work Thursday with the first of two workout-and-scrimmage sessions, in preparation for their tune-up game against the Brazil national team Saturday night at United Center.
Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball’s men’s team, opened the midday session with a pep talk, sharing the encouraging prognosis on Indiana wing Paul George, whose gruesome right-leg fractures Aug. 1 marred what to that point had been a stellar practice week in Las Vegas.
Then, a couple hours after Colangelo talked to the 16 NBA players vying for 12 Team USA roster spots, Sacramento big man DeMarcus Cousins raised the red flag of injuries again. He got tangled up with New Orleans’ Anthony Davis chasing after a loose ball and wound up lying on the court, grabbing at his right knee.
The early word was a strain, which later was amended to a bone bruise. By mid-afternoon, Cousins – who had limped out of the gym after receiving treatment – minimized the damage via social media.
Thanks for all the concern, I’m fine
— DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) August 14, 2014
Still, Cousins’ availability the rest of this week remains unknown. George will be honored via some shooting shirts the U.S. players don Saturday and for their remaining tune-up games before heading to Spain, though of course his 2014-15 season is over for the Pacers and for him.
And then there’s the very large elephant that filled the very large gymnasium Thursday, NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant‘s decision to withdraw last week, citing mental and physical fatigue despite participating in the Las Vegas sessions.
Colangelo said he was not surprised when Durant called him to withdraw, suggesting he noticed wear and tear in Oklahoma City’s four-time scoring champ during the stay in Vegas.
But it all seemed to hit Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski as news, because he had fashioned the national squad’s attack around Durant. After Thursday’s two-plus hour session, Krzyzewski bemoaned the lost preparation time, having Durant quit after rather than before the work started.
“We had a whole camp building what we’re doing around him,” Krzyzewski said. “So that’s the very first thing: You had one of the great scorers at the [power forward position]. So how does that change your offense? That changes your offense immensely.
“You have to do more to get your guards shots. I mean, these guards are really good, but they were complementing one another – Kevin with those guards. … Now we have to look at developing our inside and getting the guards more involved.”
To hear Krzyzewski tell it, losing Durant to his abrupt personal decision is little different from losing George to that devastating injury.
“You don’t replace Kevin Durant. You look different,” he said. “We have today and tomorrow to look different before we play a really good team. That’s a concern for me, because we were pretty far along.
“We had our best camp ever in Vegas since I’ve coached. We had more strategy in, to play a certain way. And then Kevin deciding not to play, we didn’t practice until we’re here. So it’s concerning. Hopefully we’ll be good enough on Saturday.”
Sacramento forward Rudy Gay, a member of the 2010 FIBA World Cup team, joined Team USA in time for Thursday’s workout. He said he’s in good enough shape and needed only to catch up with certain sets and play-calls. He has moved into Durant’s roster spot for now, but he isn’t trying to replace Durant’s production or style.
“I wish I could play like the MVP,” Gay said, smiling. “No, I’m not coming here to fill his footsteps. I just want to play hard and help this team get a W. I’m not going to do it just like him.”
Picking up the slack from Durant – and George, for that matter – figures to be a collective thing. Neither Krzyzewski nor the players nominated anyone to understudy the Durant role. More likely, the offensive burden will fall more on guards such as Stephen Curry, James Harden, Derrick Rose and Klay Thompson, with more of a shift to the outside. Also, Team USA might show feistier, small-ball lineups and dial up their defense, which was at a fever pitch already on Thursday.
“You can’t replace Kevin Durant – what he does, that’s impossible,” Thompson said. “Not having Kevin out there … if a play breaks down, you can just throw it to him and he’s going to get you a bucket.
“You just have to do it collectively. The challenge, I don’t think it’s going to be scoring. I just think it’s going to be who’s gonna rise as a leader. I’m not worried about it actually because we’ve got guys who have experience at this level – we’ve got Steph, Rudy Gay, James Harden, D. Rose.”
Said Atlanta’s Kyle Korver, another deep threat whose touches might go up a bit: “Our guard play is amazing. And that’s going to be the strength of our team now. A lot of what we do is going to be predicated off of our guard play. … I don’t think we’re going to get to the end of the shot-clock much.”
George’s freak injury revived some debate on the risks faced by NBA players – and the teams that employ and guarantee them millions of dollars – in international play such as this and the Olympics. Durant’s late withdrawal is seen by some as a second-guess and a preemptive move to avoid a mishap of his own. Cousins’ limp off the floor Thursday was yet another reminder.
But there still were 16 players in the gym, to be cut down to 12 by the time Team USA leaves New York Aug. 23. If there was any trepidation, no one was showing or saying.
“I didn’t sense anything,” Korver said. “We’re basketball players. This is what we do. … More so than anything, what gets you hurt is playing to not get hurt. When you get to this level, you have to be able to shut that out.
“We’d love to have them. We understand why Kevin’s not here. Obviously we feel horrible for Paul. But I think there’s still a lot of potential with the guys that we have.”