Brazil (1-1) 66, Spain (0-2) 65
Brazil’s next game: vs. Croatia, Thursday, Aug. 11
Spain’s next game: vs. Nigeria, Thursday, Aug. 11
When Dario Saric soared in to snatch victory from Spain’s grasp on Sunday, we quickly looked to put the Croatian victory in context. Yes, Pau Gasol and company would certainly have preferred to win their first game of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but Spain had what our Eric Freeman called “a strong recent history of overcoming preliminary round struggles to finish with a medal,” and one upset loss doesn’t necessarily spell doom.
Two in a row, though? That sure seems like cause for concern.
For the second time in three days, La Roja looked rusty, ragged and run down for the bulk of their floor time. And for the second time in three days, it came back to bite them in the form of a last-minute loss.
Holding a 65-64 lead over host nation Brazil with 23 seconds remaining, Gasol — for 15 years, the heart and soul of Spain’s national side — stepped to the line for a pair of free throws that would force coach Ruben Magnano’s team to hunt a 3-pointer to stave off defeat. A career 75.5 percent free-throw shooter in the NBA, Gasol had trouble finding his touch on Tuesday, and the new San Antonio Spurs star missed them both, giving Brazil new life and a chance to take the lead in the closing seconds.
Brazilian point guard Marcelo Huertas of the Los Angeles Lakers raced up the court, took a high screen from Houston Rockets big man Nene, and knifed down the right side of the lane. With Gasol retreating and hoping to block Huertas’ offering at the rim, as he had moments earlier to keep Spain up by two, Marcelinho instead flipped up a runner. It didn’t connect, but Spanish big men Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls and Victor Claver, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers, neglected to get a body on Brazilian forward Marcus Marquinhos, who crashed the offensive glass for a tip-in put-back to give the hosts a 66-65 lead with six seconds remaining.
Spain had one last chance to answer, but, as it had virtually all game long, its offense seemed disjointed and out of sync. All the Spanish could generate a rushed runner by Real Madrid shooting guard Sergio Llull, and it went awry, wrapping up a thrilling victory for Brazil and the partisan fans at the Carioca Arena 1 … and sending Spain to its second consecutive one-point, closing-seconds defeat.
For Brazil, the result represents a strong bounce-back from a tournament-opening loss to Lithuania, one that (for the moment, anyway) slots them in at the top of Group B with three points (two for a win, one for a loss) ahead of the second contests for Argentina, Croatia and Lithuania. It was far from a perfect performance — the hosts’ half-court offense and shot-making often left much to be desired, as they finished 23-for-60 from the field and 4-for-15 from 3-point land, and managed only 13 points in the deciding fourth quarter — but it resulted in a gritty, hard-earned and well-deserved victory for a side that, for much of the game, seemed to be playing harder, more aggressively and more determinedly than its counterpart.
The 33-year-old Huertas was, as he’s been for years, the straw that stirred the drink, orchestrating the attack in the pick-and-roll while leading the way with 11 points, seven assists and four rebounds without a turnover in 31 minutes. Nene battled foul trouble, but made his presence felt while on the court, playing tough defense and initiating offense from the foul line and post en route to six points, five assists and four rebounds.
Timely contributions from glass-crashing hero Marquinhos (10 points, five rebounds), 6-foot-10 bruiser Augusto Lima (nine points, 10 rebounds) and well-traveled veteran shooting guard Alex Garcia (nine points, four rebounds, two assists) helped Brazil overcome a quiet outing from star scorer and Phoenix Suns guard Leandro Barbosa (four points on 2-for-8 shooting, limited by foul trouble to just 25 minutes), and helped Brazil score a satisfying upset of the No. 2-ranked team in the world.
For Spain … well, for Spain, the result is at least as concerned as the means by which it was achieved.
The Spanish attack was largely punchless whenever Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio was on the floor, as the Brazilian defense just sagged off him and dared him to shoot — much as NBA teams have done in recent years, and much as Croatia did Sunday — knowing that the playmaking wiz with the shaky jumper wouldn’t be willing or able to make them pay for it. That helped gummed up the works for Spain, who shot just 37 percent from the field and 5-for-19 from long distance, and who operated much more effectively when new Philadelphia 76ers lead guard Sergio Rodriguez (10 points, five assists, two rebounds) stepped into Rubio’s role as Spain’s main facilitator.
Despite that offensive stagnation, though, the combination of some tight defense, poor shooting from the Brazilians, and occasional bursts from sources like Llull (11 points, 2-for-3 from 3-point land) and Gasol (13 points on 4-for-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots) had Spain in the thick of the contest into the final minute. Ultimately, it was Spain’s self-inflicted wounds that did them in — the 16 points they gave Brazil off their 13 turnovers, the 14 3-pointers they clanged and, most of all, the 11 free throws they missed, seven of which came off the hand of Gasol, headlined by the empty pair in the final minute.
In each of the last two Olympics, Spain stood above the rest of the international pack as the most complete, well-rounded, explosive and dangerous contender to the United States’ post-2004 dominance. Now, though — with Pau’s brother Marc Gasol injured, naturalized Congolese shot-blocker Serge Ibaka not in the side, playmakers Rubio and Jose Calderon scarcely heard from through two games, longtime shotmaker Juan Carlos Navarro looking every bit of his 36 years and seemingly no source of offensive spark on the roster — Spain looks exceedingly vulnerable, and it’s got the record to prove it.
The bottom two teams in Group B will be eliminated, and with only Spain and Nigeria sitting on goose eggs in the win column, Sergio Scariolo’s club faces the very real possibility that they might not advance out of group play and into the knockout round for the first time since 2000. Even if Spain can get on the board against Nigeria on Thursday, they’ll then have to knock off a tough Lithuania squad on Saturday before facing Manu Ginobili and Argentina on Aug. 15; depending on how things shake out, they might need to win all three simply to survive the group stage.
It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that they’ll do just that — Pau could shake his iffy shooting, Navarro and Rudy Fernandez could break loose from long distance, a youngster like recent Oklahoma City Thunder signee Alex Abrines could offer a jolt — but the chance seems more remote on Tuesday evening than it did on Monday morning. This might not be the end of the line, but this isn’t the Spain we’ve come to know. On Tuesday, nobody seemed more surprised by that than Spain themselves.
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