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I don’t care about Jokic


I don’t care about Jokic

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, elft, and Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic struggle for position during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

LAS VEGAS — The question was simple. The answer was blunt.

I asked Team USA center Joel Embiid if he was looking forward to facing Serbia’s Nikola Jokic in the opening game of the Olympics group phase on July 28.

“I don’t care about Jokic,” Embiid said after a spirited scrimmage Wednesday at UNLV’s practice gym. “I’m playing for my national team.”

Wait. What? Activate the Nuggets Nation group chat. Let’s head over to Speer Boulevard and raise some Troel Embiid signs. Or maybe even raise a few missing persons milk cartons in his honor.

Embiid remains an easy target for Nuggets fans’ vitriol. He hasn’t played in Denver since 2019. When he sat out in January as a late scratch with a sore knee, he made a little boy cry. The kid’s birthday present was a flight to Ball Arena from California to see his favorite player. Instead, all he got was overpriced concessions and flimsy napkins to wipe his tears.

When Embiid responded the way he did Wednesday, my knee-jerk reaction was to sizzle him like everything else in the desert’s 117-degree heat. Put Embiid anywhere in the country, and he’s Wilt Chamberlain with better range. Place him in Denver, and he’s Kris Bryant — a ghost in street clothes.

But this is the thing about the Olympics. It is more “we” than “me.” And while Embiid makes Nuggets fans’ skin crawl, his response was not wrong. Irritating. Annoying. But not wrong.

While he should care about Jokic — and he better, because there are no escape hatches in France — Embiid’s priorities are more macro than micro. And that is appropriate with the first game three weeks away.

“It’s all about focusing on ourselves and trying to make sure everybody is on the same page,” Embiid said. “When we get there, we don’t know what we gotta focus on. But right now it’s about getting better.”

The race is on. When it comes to Team USA and the Olympics, there is no second place. There are no Capri Suns, orange slices or flaky croissants for effort. There is the gold medal. Nothing else. The Americans have won four straight.

Watching Team USA practice against the American Select Team, it is clear the red, white and blue remain a work in progress. Incoming Duke freshman Cooper Flagg, only 17, was the best player on the floor during the media viewing period. He drained 3s, put defenders on skates and delivered a one-handed, flailing put-back on a missed jump shot that featured everything but an exclamation point.

It circles back to what Embiid was saying. Team USA needs reps together. Nobody cares that the players have only 40 days to microwave chemistry, while showing humility and character. Egos must be checked like charter baggage.

“I think our country is going to be very proud of our team,” Team USA coach Steve Kerr said.

In 1992, there was The Dream Team, anchored by Michael Jordan. In 2008, there was the Redeem Team, led by Kobe Bryant. In 2024, there will be the Meme Team if the Americans don’t stand on the highest podium. This is the reality when a squad features 12 potential Hall of Famers.

“That’s the standard of USA Basketball. It’s never going to change. That’s the honor and privilege of wearing this jersey, and I don’t think any of us would have it any other way,” said Pacers star guard Tyrese Haliburton. “I think we all welcome the pressure.”

There is a sense of urgency that wasn’t necessary 32 years ago when Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Larry Bird wandered into Barcelona like the Beatles. The days of rolling out the basketballs, routing an inferior opponent and signing autographs on the court afterwards have long since vanished.

Remember, the Americans lost their first game at the Tokyo Games in 2020, spent several days staving off elimination and barely claimed the gold medal with a nervy 87-82 victory over France.

Five players return from that team, including Kevin Durant and Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum, a newly minted champion. It is a reminder that Embiid’s apathy toward Jokic — as silly as it is — can serve a purpose.

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