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USA Basketball isn't playing scared

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Paul George's injury couldn't break the spirit of Team USA as it prepares for its first exhibition game on Saturday vs. Brazil.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- It was late in a Team USA scrimmage when things took a familiar and unnerving turn. DeMarcus Cousins stripped Anthony Davis at the elbow of the free throw line, dove on the floor and bobbled the ball. When Davis made his own attempt to corral the loose ball, his legs got tangled under Cousins' right knee, sending the Kings big man into a momentary bit of shock and pain.

Suddenly, a busy building turned noiseless and tepid, but there was no way to mute the thoughts racing through every player's head. Oh no, not again. This, after all, was Team USA's first practice since Paul George's devastating leg injury. Cousins lay on the ground for only a minute or two, but it seemed 10 times longer.

Cousins is fine, as it turns out. An MRI later that night revealed no structural damage to his knee. The sigh of relief can be heard from the capital of California all the way to Chicago, where a weary team couldn't stomach to lose a third straight All-Star caliber player in the run-up to the FIBA World Cup.

At this point, the players composing the 16-man training camp roster know what they're getting themselves into.

"You just can't think about it, man," said Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. "We got a job where we have to go out and play. Anything can happen. That's like walking outside on a stormy day: you don't think you're gonna get struck by lightning but you still gotta go outside. That's how you gotta think coming out here."

George isn't the only notable absence since the last time Team USA suited up. Reigning MVP Kevin Durant was there in Las Vegas, covering his face in horror like everyone else at the sight of George's leg breaking into two distinct pieces. Durant pulled out of Team USA last week citing a need for rest. While he didn't openly acknowledge George's gruesome injury playing a role in the decision, no one could fault him if it were true.

The images on the faces of Team USA in the immediate wake of the injury were nearly as unforgettable as the horrifying break itself. It was a disturbing moment, but it brought players from rival NBA teams closer for a player they are now calling a friend and teammate.

"Man, we were in shock for sure," said Warriors guard Stephen Curry. "You saw the way teammates went down and crashed after the injury. I think it motivates us even more coming back here to win the gold for him."

Team USA

Team USA regroups after the gruesome injury to Paul George/Photo credit: Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Talk about George with the remaining members of the team and you'll get two common responses. The first is that the players are praying for George, wishing him a speedy and healthy recovery even if it means missing all of next season. The second is that they aren't about to let the injury sneak into the back of their minds when they're on the court.

These are basketball players, and so they play basketball. Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game everyone knows they signed up for.

"Every time you suit up, whether it's in practice during the season or a workout in the summer playing pickup, you're always at risk of getting hurt," said Curry. "We understand that as basketball players. You don't want it to happen and try to keep yourself out of precarious situations, but when you're on the floor you can't afford to have any doubt or hesitation. That's when injuries actually do happen."

"That's like walking outside on a stormy day: you don't think you're gonna get struck by lightning but you still gotta go outside. That's how you gotta think coming out here."

With so much talk about injuries, it's only natural to consider where Derrick Rose fits into all of this. Rose is using USA Basketball as a way to gear up for the regular season after only playing 10 total games the last two. Both of his knees are surgically repaired at this point, but he was flying around the court on Thursday without even a hint of tentativeness. Rose is playing as confidently as he speaks.

"I have no fear. I have faith. I know I'm gonna be fine," said Rose. "I know that I busted my ass the entire two summers. You can say two seasons to get back to where I am right now. And just try and keep it moving, stay positive every day, do everything consistent like I've been doing."

You get the sense that Mike Krzyzewski's squad will be relieved when the opponent on the other side is someone besides themselves. With Saturday night's exhibition game against Brazil looming, that relief is finally on the way. It was a longer and more painful road to get here than anyone anticipated, but the players are coping the only way they know how: by playing more basketball.


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