By Antonio Gonzalez
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The first time the Golden State Warriors practiced this season, new coach Steve Kerr noticed something different about Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson compared to the rest of the team.
The backcourt tandem, fresh off helping the U.S. to a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup, had spent all summer playing together.
“They were definitely ahead of everyone in training camp,” Kerr said. “You could just see it. They were in a groove from the first exhibition game, and they’ve played great throughout the first few weeks of the season.”
They’re not alone, either.
Many of the players on that team have carried the success from Spain back to the NBA. While the risks of participating dominated the national dialogue after Paul George’s gruesome right leg injury and Kevin Durant dropped out, those who stayed believe there’s a link between the work this summer and the wins this fall.
“When you get a chance to do something like that, especially in the summer, it gives us kind of like motivation and energy leading into the season,” said Anthony Davis, who leads New Orleans against Golden State on Thursday night. “It makes sure you go into the season running instead of having to get back in shape and get your game back on point.”
Davis entered Thursday’s games averaging career highs of 24.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. Thompson and Curry each won Western Conference Player of the Week honours to open the season, and Curry also took home Western Conference Player of the Month honours.
The streaky shooting “Splash Brothers” have the Golden State Warriors (15-2) off to their best start in franchise history, including winning 10 straight games. James Harden has the Houston Rockets looking like title contenders, too, and DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay are beginning to bring the Sacramento Kings back to relevance after eight consecutive losing seasons.
Players say they returned to their teams confident, conditioned and craving another chance to compete at basketball’s highest levels.
“I haven’t really had that feeling playing in that type of game maybe since college when I was playing in the NCAA tournament,” said Cousins, who is averaging career bests of 23.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. “Being in that type of game, it felt good to win.”
But the impact of playing for Team USA goes beyond statistics for players.
Kyrie Irving said playing with some of the game’s greatest stars helped prepare him for his role next to LeBron James and Kevin Love on the reconstructed Cleveland Cavaliers. Detroit Pistons centre Andre Drummond credits his time with Team USA for teaching him how to be a leader. The experience inspired Denver’s Kenneth Faried to improve.
Thompson attributes the growth in his game to a self-assured attitude and a better understanding of how to maximize his talents.
“I knew I could play. I sort of surprised myself and it gave me a whole new sense of confidence coming into the season just knowing that I could be such a big factor on such a great team,” said Thompson, who is averaging a career-high 20.9 points and become one of the league’s best on-ball defenders.
In some cases, though, playing this summer has reignited questions about being overworked.
Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan is out indefinitely with a torn tendon in his left groin. Chicago’s Derrick Rose, who used the experience to get back into playing shape after missing most of the last two years with knee injuries, has sprained both ankles and been bothered by a sore left hamstring. Gay also has dealt with tendinitis in his right Achilles tendon.
There’s no way to say whether those injuries are due to playing for Team USA. Players do say, however, that recovering for the NBA season is more of a concern for older veterans than for any of the young guys who participated. Gay was the oldest player on the team _ and he’s still just 28.
No player averaged more than 25 minutes with Team USA, and most say that beating Finland by 59, the Dominican Republic by 35 and Slovenia by 33 might not have helped them get that much better. But the competition in practices was intense and unlike anything most had ever faced.
“It forced you to get better,” Curry said. “And I think we all came out of it feeling like we did.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.