July 11, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team USA players from left, guard Kevin Durant, guard Russell Westbrook and guard James Harden during practice at the UNLV Mendenhall Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Olympic Basketball 2012: Did OKC Thunder players benefit from Olympics?

The Oklahoma City Thunder became the first NBA team ever this summer to send three players to the Olympics to represent the United States.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all won gold for Team USA this past weekend as the team beat Spain 107-100 in the gold medal game. Serge Ibaka would medal as well as he took home the silver playing for Spain.

“I have a gold medal,” Durant told USABasketball.com. “It’s unbelievable, man. I couldn’t sleep last night waiting for the game. I’m glad we came out and got the W.”

The Thunder players got this chance to represent their countries after a long NBA season ending in disappointment when they lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

While there has been a lot of talk about NBA players sacrificing and risking a lot to play in the Olympics, it may have been just what the Thunder players needed.

“I think it’s really helpful for them to play under different circumstances; it only rounds them out as players and makes them better,” Thunder GM Sam Presti told SI.com. “What we observed from the World Championship was just the mental endurance that it takes to go through an international competition and the training camp that leads up to it in medal-round play just to get there.”

Presti also doesn’t have to worry as much about the Thunder players because they are so young. Durant will be 24 next year while the other three are all a year or so younger than him. They can handle throwing in the Olympics in their summer and still have the time to rest some and be ready for next season.

As Durant will tell you, he’d be playing basketball anyway and it might as well be in the Olympics. Basketball has become year round and these guys are used to playing at a high level during their summers.

“Just the level of mental endurance that Kevin and Russell have been exposed to and conditioned themselves to, I think has really helped us in our playoff series,” Presti said. “That’s a real benefit. I think Serge’s experiences with the national team, again just being in different situations and adjusting to different styles of play, it only makes him a more well-rounded player.

“And James now is also getting that level of experience. I really feel like we’ve benefited from all of the exposures that the players have been given, and I think they’re all very grateful for the opportunity too. It’s fun to watch them in these situations.”

Harden playing with the team this time around should really benefit him and the Thunder long-term. He got a chance to be around the best players in the world some more, learn from LeBron and Kobe, and bond some more with his teammates in a once in a lifetime experience.

With extension talks on the horizon for Harden, playing in the Olympics should only increase his desire to stay in OKC.

“Everything,” Harden said when asked what he will take away from the experience. “Every single day it was something different. Especially, like I said, being with these guys. You get to watch them play basketball, you play basketball against them, but once you are the same team you get a feeling for who they are as a person. Every single day was something different and I am just happy to be a part of this team.”

Winning gold is something that surely helped ease the pain of losing in the NBA Finals but the Thunder players were still reminded of it every day. All they had to do was look across the court at LeBron to remember the hurt.

That experience is what will drive them to be better next year. It wasn’t just winning gold on this team but doing it with LeBron and seeing the kind of year he was having. Durant talked about how hard it was to see LeBron every day training for the Olympics because he wants so bad what he has.

It really couldn’t be coming together any better for the Thunder players. Their Olympic experience went about as good as it could have and they are now better for it.

Tags: 2012 Olympics James Harden Kevin Durant LeBron James Russell Westbrook Serge Ibaka Spain USA Basketball

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