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NBA Finals rivals to become Tokyo Olympic teammates

/ 03:28 PM July 20, 2021
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Jrue Holiday #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks in the second half of game five of the NBA Finals at Footprint Center on July 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Jrue Holiday #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks in the second half of game five of the NBA Finals at Footprint Center on July 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.  Christian Petersen/Getty Images/AFP 

After 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 three-time 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 on Tuesday.

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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 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.

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“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 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’ve 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.

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“I heard about all that,” Holiday said. “Fortunately for me, I’m in probably one of the biggest games of my career, this coming-up 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.”

Olympics in the family

 P.J. Tucker #17 and Jrue Holiday #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate a team win against the Phoenix Suns in Game Five of the NBA Finals at Footprint Center on July 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona

P.J. Tucker #17 and Jrue Holiday #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate a team win against the Phoenix Suns in Game Five of the NBA Finals at Footprint Center on July 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.  Christian Petersen/Getty Images/AFP 

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

“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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TAGS: Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday, NBA Finals, Team USA, Tokyo Olympics
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