Jul 31, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Brazil guard Marcelinho Huertas (9) drives to the basket under pressure from Great Britain guard Nate Reinking (12) in the men's preliminary game during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Basketball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Brazil scored all of four points in the first quarter against Britain on Tuesday. Yet somehow, the Brazilians are undefeated and a couple of tweaks from a potential run at the Team USA and gold.
If you look at the standings, things in Group B of the Olympic men's basketball tournament have gone according to plan. Australia, China and Great Britain are each 0-2. Now they'll fidget among one another for the group's final knockout bid and a summary hoop execution from Team USA in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Russia, Spain and Brazil are all 2-0, as expected. They'll now battle for the No. 1 seed in the group, also known as the You Don't Have To Meet Team USA Until The Gold Medal Game, Should You Get There card.
There's one little problem, and it is that while Russia has looked nothing short of spectacular and while Spain has been strong if not quite perfect, Brazil has been a pretty big flop. An undefeated, tied-for-first-place flop, yes. But a flop nonetheless. Brazil opened the tournament with a four-point win over Australia ... a team that Spain on Tuesday beat by 12 despite treating much of the fourth like garbage time. On Tuesday, Brazil edged hosts Great Britain by five points. Britain had lost to Russia by 20 on Sunday and hasn't won an Olympic game since 1948.
Victories are victories, but the schedule is going to soon get much tougher. On Thursday, Brazil draws Russia, a squad that only qualified for the Games two weeks ago but looks like the second best nation in the tournament right now behind Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, new mates on the Minnesota Timberwolves. Based on how Russia has played and how Brazil has played, a reasonable person would expect Russia to dominate. The same would to apply to Spain-Brazil, scheduled for Monday.
But of course, Brazil can correct its ills by getting back up. All they've lost is confidence (and some margin for error in point differential, I suppose). Brazil's defensive numbers are actually quite good: facing two teams who aren't exactly offensive powers but have dangerous players (Yi Jianlian for China, Patty Mills for Australia), the Brazilians rank No. 3 in defense in the tournament with 0.87 opponents points per possession. Team USA and Russia are ahead. Brazil is forcing turnovers (38, behind only Nigeria's 39) and held China and Australia to combined 40 percent shooting. That's promising, and an item for the team to hang its hat on.
But the offense has been disastrous, with Brazil shooting only 42 percent itself, and just 5-37 from long range. Coach Ruben Magnano has had Nene coming off the bench, and the offense has featured three players in heavy rotation: Leandro Barbosa (shooting 38 percent, 1-9 on threes with five turnovers and one assist), Marcelinho Huertas (shooting 36 percent including 0-5 on threes, but with 18 assists and four turnovers) and Tiago Splitter (shooting 52 percent).
Neither Nene nor Anderson Varejao will be featured scorers on any team, apparently. But for Nene to have nine total field goal attempts through two games is mystifying. Brazil's offense has been very perimeter oriented -- ancient wing Marcelo Machado has played less than a third of the minutes Nene has, yet has more attempts from the floor. But starting Nene might not fix the issue, as he'd likely replace Varejao, another team star taking few shots, and not Splitter, whose post action is pretty handy playing off Huertas. Playing giant by benching small forward Alex Garcia (another role player) is untenable against Russia, who will shove Andrei Kirilenko down your throat repeatedly and without apology, and Spain, who has a little fella named Juan Carlos Navarro.
Whatever the solution, Brazil is No. 6 in offense after facing two teams not considered to be heavy on stoppers. Russia has Kirilenko and Timofey Mozgov to batten down the hatches. Spain has the double Gasol plus Ibaka line. Brazil needs to sort out its offensive stink quickly or risk being tossed down the table. And it cannot rely on Huertas to bail them out with dribble-drive creation (as great fun as it is to watch) because Huertas isn't finishing in the paint and opponents will recognize. And Brazil cannot rely on Barbosa to bail them out with the jumper because his jumper looks pretty poor. What Brazil has put together has been enough so far, but this luck won't last. Brazil needs to significantly improve its performance on Thursday or it runs the risk of getting run right out of the building by the Russians.
If Brazil can fix the problem, the medal round looks fairly open as one of Spain and Russia would likely face Team USA in the semifinals. Given that no one in Group A but the Americans looks truly great -- France knocked down Argentina to even those two contenders up -- Brazil could find itself with a chance to beat either Spain or Russia in the semis for a berth to the gold medal game. It's within reach if the Brazilians can start reaching the basket with a little more success.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.