SHANGHAI — During their first night in China, the members of Team USA didn’t want to be around any coaches or other staff members. Gregg Popovich, a famous host of dinners, couldn’t have been happier he was excluded from their plans.
From the first day this team got together in Las Vegas four weeks ago, Popovich has been trying to foster chemistry with the mashed together group. Indeed, he’s held a few of his marathon dinners where he’s tried to lay the groundwork. But them going out as a group on their own made him smile.
“They’ve become close in a short period of time,” Popovich said. “The camaraderie has blossomed, and I think that will bode well for us.”
This is a challenge with every version of the national team. This is one area where the American teams are behind their competition in international events, and it’s contributed to losses. This year, with so many Team USA veterans skipping the FIBA World Cup, it was at the top of Popovich’s goal list to build some capital within the group for when the pressure arrives.
So after an overnight flight from Sydney, a group text went out Thursday, calling for a players-only dinner. Well, it went out to almost everyone. It seems that Brook Lopez is the only one on the team who doesn’t have an iPhone. Somehow he didn’t get the message and ended up with room service.
“What can I say,” Lopez said, “I’m a Samsung guy.”
It wasn’t the most inventive choice for an evening in Shanghai — the group went to the local Morton’s for steak and sea bass — but the food was not the point. Whatever has been said about this team, one thing that is becoming apparent is it has embraced the need to construct some semblance of chemistry.
“We have great chemistry I think. We’re getting along really well,” Kemba Walker said after practice Friday at an international school in the Pudong section of the sprawling city. “We want to play for each other and that’s the biggest thing.”
Walker picked up the check for the group of 20, part of the surcharge of his new $140 million contract he signed with the Boston Celtics earlier this summer. “It’s not the first time I’ve gotten the bill this summer and won’t be the last,” he joked.
It takes more than breaking bread to create a winning environment, of course. But this is now the fifth city on the third continent where this group has been together, and there’s been very little consistency other than that camaraderie.
There’s been evolving lineups and surprise departures — the latest being Kyle Kuzma for a foot injury that sent him on a flight home to Los Angeles after he woke up with pain — that have tested everyone’s patience a bit. Popovich started five different lineups in the five exhibition games.
The loss last week in Australia wasn’t a picnic and the players had to go from answering questions about all the stars who aren’t with them to explaining how they ended their 78-game win streak. The cheer, for now, remains.
“You have to enjoy being with people in order to feel responsible for them,” Popovich said. “To be accountable to each other, you have to have some sort of empathetic bond. You have to love each other to a degree.”
The strategy and execution will truly start to matter Sunday when they open the World Cup against the Czech Republic. They’ve had some positive moments in the run-up games, and others not so much. Soon that will be the focus. In the meantime, the group is enjoying itself off the court and expecting it to translate on it.
“We’re constantly communicating and constantly picking each other up,” Walker said. “We love being around each other, it’s been a great experience for all of us.”