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How Kevin Durant ‘mesmerized’ Gregg Popovich at Team USA practice

Gregg Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in the NBA, has presided over thousands of practices. The 73-year-old is in his 27th season as Spurs head man, a five-time NBA champion who owns a couple gold medals, too.

But he has not seen much like a Kevin Durant workout.

Durant, the MVP of the 2020 Men’s Olympic Basketball Tournament in Tokyo, impressed in the minutes after practices ended, too.

“When practices were over, not just the other players but the coaching staff, we’d all be mesmerized,” Popovich, the head coach of Team USA that cycle, recalled Monday before the Nets crushed the Spurs, 139-103, at Barclays Center. “[We would] watch him go through his individual workout. He’d go over at one of the baskets — usually [Jazz coach] Will Hardy would take him over there — and he busted Will Hardy’s butt for like 45 minutes chasing balls and throwing it back to him as he did his workout. … It was just his way.”

Kevin Durant goes up for two of his 25 points against the Spurs on Monday night at Barclays Center.
Kevin Durant goes up for two of his 25 points against the Spurs on Monday night at Barclays Center.
Robert Sabo

On a team filled with stars, such as Devin Booker and Damian Lillard, Popovich watched as everyone watched Durant.

“I don’t think other players from other teams did those sorts of things,” Popovich said before Durant poured in 25 points on just 14 shots. “He loved the game in that way to really work on all the basics and all the fundamentals. It was special.”

Durant’s work ethic might help explain how, after tearing his Achilles in June 2019 and while playing in his 15th NBA season, he might be getting better.

It is nearly unfathomable that a superstar nearing his 1,000th NBA game might still be improving — “I don’t know how you can get a whole lot better,” Popovich said — but it is possible Durant is enjoying his best season yet.

Durant has only been the MVP once, in 2013-14, but nine seasons later he is making a strong claim for a second. The superstar has been the undisputed best player on the second best team in the Eastern Conference. “I don’t think a lot of people understand,” said Popovich, who watched Durant score 20.7 points per game in Tokyo. “They think he’s [just] talented, he’s really good, can get his shot off.”

Popovich said Durant was the leader of Team USA, which he carried to and in the championship game. In the gold medal game, Durant scored 29 points in a win over France.

Gregg Popovich
Gregg Popovich

If Durant adds a second NBA MVP trophy to his case, as a mid-30s player in a game filled with talented kids, his dedication would be credited.

“He loves the game as much as anybody has ever loved the game,” Popovich said. “He just wants to play.”

Jacque Vaughn and Popovich hugged after the game, an embrace that meant plenty to the Nets head coach.

“I love him,” Vaughn said. “He has meant the world to me and still does.”

Back in 2009, Vaughn was contemplating a 13th NBA season after he finished his third campaign with Popovich’s Spurs. Vaughn, who prided himself on being the “most well-conditioned” dude on the team,” had young children and was not sure he had the time to get his body into the shape that he wanted it to be.

He talked with Popovich and told his coach he might take the season off.

“He said, ‘You can always come and shadow, follow, be around us and figure it out along the way,” Vaughn said. “And that’s kind of how it started.”

Vaughn quit one basketball life and began another, going from player to assistant with San Antonio from 2010-12. He then landed his first head-coaching gig with the Magic, another branch off Popovich’s coaching tree.

Vaughn lasted three years with the short-on-talent Magic before he was fired and landed with the Nets as an assistant. He took the reins from Steve Nash in November and has guided the Nets to second place in the Eastern Conference.

Vaughn was asked what he learned from Popovich.

“We don’t have enough time for that one,” Vaughn said. “I’m in this position because of him.”

The biggest ovation of the night may have been for France and Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappé, who was shown on the big screen before the fourth quarter.

Ben Simmons dished all nine of his assists in the first half, matching the most assists recorded by a Net in any half this season.

Joe Harris, who had missed four straight games with left knee soreness, scored eight points on 3-of-4 shooting in his return.

Royce O’Neale (non-COVID illness) was a late scratch. Markieff Morris also sat with a non-COVID illness.

Popovich was asked if he could have coached in New York.

“I’m a San Antonio guy, but I love being here,” said Popovich, who proudly stated he walked 82 blocks in the city before the game.

“We’re on 28th, so I went up to 70th or 72nd or so and came back,” said Popovich, who added he ate “a little Italian, little Turkish, little Lebanese. Good stuff.”

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