USA Basketball rolled into the nation’s capital this past weekend, taking part in a variety of World Basketball Festival events throughout the city. It all culminates with the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams facing off tonight at the Verizon Center against their counterparts from Brazil in a friendly exhibition. The men’s team held a “Hoops for Troops” practice on Saturday afternoon at D.C. Armory in front of 3,000 fans, many of them members of the armed forces. The team ran through 5-on-0 full court offensive sets, defensive drills, and had an intra-squad scrimmage. The special gathering had a “midnight madness” feel with a sprinkle of Wizards home game flavor. And, lest we forget, these are the best basketball players in the world going hard at each other; it was truly special to witness. (Additional coverage of this experience will be available in forthcoming posts.)
On Sunday, the men’s team held a practice at the Smith Center (George Washington University’s basketball arena), and it was briefly open to the media. The preparations are part of the USA Basketball tour that started in Las Vegas with this stop in D.C., along with appearances in Manchester, England and Barcelona, Spain, before ultimately arriving in London to defend their 2008 Olympic gold.
Last Thursday night, Team USA rolled the Dominican Republic, 113-59, in their first exhibition contest. Andre Iguodala sees Brazil as a more formidable foe: “It will be a really good good test for us to see where we are at against a team that has a chance to get a medal.”
In the 2010 FIBA World Championships, the U.S. barely beat Brazil, 70-68, as Brazilian guard Leandro Barbosa’s potential game-tying shot rimmed out at the buzzer. Kevin Durant, MVP of the tournament, remembers the difficult battle in Istanbul, Turkey: “We played them two years ago and they did whatever they wanted because we didn’t get into them defensively. So we got to make them uncomfortable, make some stops and get out and run.”
Barbosa says Brazil is ready for the challenge against the talented U.S. squad: “We know the US team is a dream team, the second ‘Dream Team.’ We have alot of respect for all of the players. There is a lot of All-Star players. We are going to bring the energy and the power that we have and play the game.”
Brazil is coached by Ruben Magano, who led Argentina to the gold medal in 2004 summer games in Athens, Greece. This will be Brazil’s first Olympic men’s basketball competition since 1996, and they will be in the opposite pools as Team USA, so these two squads could only meet again in the medal round.
Brazil features four NBA players on their roster: Nene (Wizards), Anderson Varejao (Cavaliers), Tiago Splitter (Spurs), and Barbosa (formerly with the Pacers, but currently an unrestricted free agent). Nene and Varejao did not play in the 2010 World Championship games, where the U.S. squad was missing several of their prominent stars, too.
Team USA’s lack of big men is widely seen as their only possible weakness that Brazil’s stacked front line could potentially exploit. Several players would like to flip the script on this narrative.
“See if we can use their size against them, ” Kobe Bryant added. “Rush the tempo of the game, get their bigs out in the open court.”
“I’m pretty sure they think that our weakness is inside but we have to make that into one of our strength,” agreed Igoudala.
“They got alot of size,” said LeBron James. “They play alot of inside ball, which will put pressure on our interior defense. We understand that. A lot of teams are going to try that, and we look forward to it.”
Magano is convinced that USA Head Coach Mike Kryzewski will be ready with the proper adjustment. “It may be a weakness, the low post, but I am sure Coach K has already made a game plan to fight our big guys,” he said.
In addition to the collection of NBA superstars on Team USA, all eyes will be on Nene, as the Brazilian basketball legend will be looking to make a statement in his new home NBA arena — the Verizon Center in D.C.’s Penn Quarter — as well as in front of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who are expected to be in attendance. Nene’s skill set is well-known to Durant.
“I played against him in the playoffs two years ago and it was a nightmare just thinking about preparing for him,” said Durant.
“Anytime he is healthy, he brings an intensity and a physical presence to any team,” said Lebron, “So we have to match that.”
“He is terrific,” said coach Kryzewski in describing Nene. “He will be as good as any big guy as we will face throughout the Olympics.”
Barbosa sees Nene as an instrumental cog to their success. “He’s something that not a lot of teams have — on the Olympics especially. He is bringing the power for us.”
Nene’s influence and importance to the game of Basketball in Brazil can not be understated.
“He’s a reference for us, one of the best players in the country, that is why he was called by me to join the national team,” beamed Magano. ”He has an important role on this team as he is a reference for the sport.”
The men’s game tips off at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN2, preceded by the woman’s contest at 5:30 p.m. EDT.
Video of Team USA and Brazil Quotes:
Several members of the Brazilian team had a half-court shot contest after their practice on Saturday. The reactions of Varejao and Splitter are outstanding — and probably even better if you understand Portuguese.