Kevin Durant: “It’s always good to get a punch in the mouth early on to remind us that it’s not going to be a cakewalk.”

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Kevin Durant #5 of United States drives the ball up the court against Serbia during the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21: Kevin Durant #5 of United States drives the ball up the court against Serbia during the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Two-time Olympic gold medallist Kevin Durant and U.S. basketball head coach Gregg Popovich both frank but quietly optimistic ahead of first match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Sunday.

U.S. men’s basketball star Kevin Durant knows very well that Team USA have a target on their back.

“Every team wants to beat us. Everyone wants to see us lose so every game has a little more pressure to it,” the two-time Olympic gold medallist shared to media in Japan on Wednesday (21st July).

Ever since 1992, when the U.S. enabled NBA stars to feature in the roster, the men’s basketball team has been a force to be reckoned with. Team USA have clinched Olympic gold a grand total of six times.

In other words, not only are they the team to beat at Tokyo 2020, in 2021, but doing so would derail the basketball world order. Following their warm-up results, Durant knows the USA will need to be at their best from minute one of Sunday's opener.

USA men need lift in form at Tokyo Olympics

The U.S. men's team recently dropped two exhibition games ahead of the Games - losing to Australia and Nigeria – before then quickly bouncing back with wins over Argentina and Spain.

The depleted squad, who played the fixtures with Kevin Love and Bradley Beal left many wondering if the dominance of U.S. basketball might finally be waning. Durant was adamant that was not the case:

“It’s always good to get a punch in the mouth early on, to remind us that it’s not going to be a cakewalk.” - Kevin Durant

“I’m sure other teams saw us lose and feel confident coming into the tournament, but we understand what we are getting ourselves into and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

“So many people are used to Team USA coming in and blowing everyone else so it’s good for us to see that. Hopefully those are the last losses."

Popovic: NBA Finals stars won't feature in U.S. basketball opener

The question on everyone’s lips regarded the flight status of recent NBA championship winners Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, and finalist Devin Booker, and whether they would be fit to play in the first U.S. game, against France on Sunday.

Head coach Gregg Popovich confirmed that they would not feature, as his players only land in Japan’s capital on Saturday:

“There’s not a whole lot we can do when they get here the day before,” the five-time NBA champion as San Antonio’s coach explained.

“The good thing is they’ll be in shape. I don’t know how the plane is going to affect them; that’s not an easy flight. But it is true they won’t be as ready to play in the sense of execution that we might want but that’s understandable.”

For 32-year-old Durant, the reinforcements will be a very welcome addition.

Middleton and Holiday have excelled this season for the Milwaukee Bucks. Together, the two helped their side end a 50-year title drought after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game Six: 105-98.

“Three guys – two champions, newly crowned champions. And another guy who has been on that stage and knows all about it, winning big games and playing it big games. So add the IQs, three of those guys IQs to the team – it’s going to help.”

Popovich also revealed that Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine would be returning to camp after initially failing to clear health protocols:

“I think he’ll [LaVine] be available for practice on Friday, and assuming everything goes well he’ll be available on Sunday.”

Coach Popovich is confident that his side are growing in strength by the day.

“Chemistry is something that we hope forms quickly. These guys get along very well… they know each other and they’re very happy to be here. They sacrificed a lot under the circumstances to do this.”

Popovich hasn't revealed who will start on Sunday, but is conscious of the threat France will pose with the likes of Rudy Gobert in their ranks. The French ousted the U.S. from the 2019 Basketball World Cup in China.

Durant also knows it'll be a tough opener: “France is a well-oiled machine. They’ve been playing together since they were kids. They know each other; there’s a lot of NBA players on that team.”

“We understand how talented these teams are and how good their chemistry is so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Catch the U.S. men’s basketball team in action when they begin their Olympic gold medal campaign against France on Sunday 25 July at 21:00 JST, and follow it all on our Live Blog.