NewsDay (Zimbabwe)

NBA Finals rivals to become Olympic teammates

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battling each other for more than two weeks in the NBA finals, Phoenix guard Devin Booker and Milwaukee stars Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton will quickly become US Olympic teammates.

All three will join the threetime defending champion American squad in Japan following the conclusion of the best-of-seven championsh­ip series, with host Milwaukee leading 3-2 entering game six yesterday.

Booker has produced two 40-point performanc­es for the Suns but the Bucks won both times and no matter how the series goes, winners and losers must set aside their rivalry quickly to unite in red, white and blue.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Middleton said on Monday. “Right now, we haven’t said a word to each other. 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 Xs and Os, trying to get the job done. That’s what being competitor­s is all about, but also what being a teammate is all about.”

There’s a respect between the players that underlies their passionate fight against each other, which saw Holiday make a key steal from Booker with game five on the line on Sunday.

“I would say just understand­ing competitio­n and that 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.”

As they battle for an NBA crown before joining the quest for gold, the Tokyo-bound trio have watched US exhibition games in Las Vegas — two of them upset losses to Nigeria and Australia.

They have also watched Washington guard Bradley Beal be lost to COVID-19 with another guard, Chicago’s Zach LaVine, forced to stay home from the team’s flight to Japan after being placed into COVID-19 protocols.

“I heard about all that,” Holiday said. “fortunatel­y for me, I’m in probably one of the biggest games of my career, this comingup game.”

Both Bucks said it wasn’t a tough decision to play for the US team, even with a tight turnaround from the NBA finals, which could go to a seventh game on Thursday, to Sunday’s start of Olympic competitio­n.

“It wasn’t that difficult,” said Middleton. “Just being an Olympian, representi­ng our country and having a chance to play for a gold medal with a great team, that was it.”

There was no such thing as too much basketball for Middleton.

“Doesn’t bother me at all. I love basketball. I love playing it,” he said. “During the off-season 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. Once you get out of shape, it’s hard to get those wheels going again.”

Holiday is married to Lauren Cheney, a two-time Olympic champion with the US women’s soccer team.

“There’s a component of playing for your country, for your family, my wife being a two-time Olympian is also a factor,” he said.

“But I think not having a break and just feeling like, well, we’re in the finals, why not just continue playing basketball?

“Win the championsh­ip. And just go from there. 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 what I’m focused on right now.”

Holiday and Middleton never talked to Bucks coach Mike Budenholze­r about the NBA playoffs-Olympics double.

“They both went rogue. They completely iced me out of the decision. Probably smart on their part,” Budenholze­r said.

“excited for them and their opportunit­y. A little more interested that their focus is right here with us now, but they’re built to handle all this.”

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