LONDON -- Sometimes, you wonder how they do it, how they crack jokes, slap hands and eat meals so casually with the man who cut their hearts out. A month ago LeBron James was the enemy to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Oklahoma City lost to Miami but it was James, averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists in a Finals MVP performance, who delivered blow after crippling blow. The pain of the loss is still there -- "I'm still not over it," said Westbrook -- but there they were, in the U.S.'s 98-71 Olympics opening win over France, Durant dunking off James feeds, Westbrook finding James for open jumpers, teammates united in the pursuit of gold.
Nate McMillan isn't sure he could do it. McMillan played through excruciating back pain as a member of the Sonics in the 1996 Finals, a pain that paled to the agony of watching Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls celebrate an NBA championship at his expense. It was a different time back then, McMillan, now a USA Basketball assistant, admits. Before Twitter and Instagram, texting and BlackBerry messaging, before rivals so easily became friends.
But team up with the men that beat him? That's like getting dumped by your hot girlfriend, then having her move in next door.
"Under any circumstances it's hard to like someone that you are going to try and kick the crap out of in a few months," McMillan said. "But this team has been really good, those [Thunder] guys included. You are seeing some things with this group that you don't typically see with a group of NBA players. They are really close. I have seen some teams where no way a guy can come in here and become friends. But I think they are trying to separate the NBA stuff from this and try to win gold."
James has done his part to ease any possible tension, rarely, if ever, talking about Miami's championship. James's head-to-head with Durant was the Finals most talked-about matchup, one he knows would consume him if he lost it.
"It bothers him," James told reporters recently. "I bet it bothers him and Westbrook. They probably don't want to hear about it. It would bother me. It would bother anyone that you lose to someone in the finals, where everyone's competing at the highest level and you want to win and then you have to team up with them not too long, not too far removed from the games."
Basketball has become a refuge for the Thunder trio. When the USA coaches convened in Las Vegas earlier this month, it was determined that the players who played in the Finals would be offered a few days off. James skipped a couple of scrimmages. Durant, Westbrook and Harden did not. Westbrook, McMillan said, "started pressing Jrue Holiday and John Wall like it was the Finals."
"Westbrook was the first one into practice, going 1,000 miles an hour," added USA assistant Mike D'Antoni. "Durant doesn't want to come out of any scrimmages, Harden was the same way. These are special kids. They embody what you want from guys on this team. They are always listening, always first to practice, always working hard."
They are indefatigable, Durant, Westbrook and Harden. Optional practice? They will be there. Optional shootaround? Just tell them where and when. The hectic international schedule has limited the U.S. team's practice time but the Thunder three have managed to sneak in a few workouts together.
"Just figuring out ways to get better," Harden said.
Yes, the pain is still there but the Thunder players are ready to turn the page. They will glean every bit of knowledge from this USA basketball journey, then will report to training camp in the fall with the expectation of winning a championship. "This experience makes you tougher," Westbrook said. "Guys play a lot harder for their countries. It's a little different than the NBA."
They have an understanding of what it takes to win a title now, of how difficult that final step is to make. Undoubtedly it is gut wrenching to look at James, to stomach even the most casual of conversations about Miami's championship. Just more fuel to the fire though, more motivation for next season.
"We have to continue on the same road we have been on since 2009," Durant said. "This experience, everything we have been through, is going to help us out."