Nene didn’t feel like a visitor and certainly wasn’t treated like one when Brazil lost, 80-69, to Team USA on Monday at Verizon Center. He wasn’t able to dress in his usual locker room stall, with the Americans occupying the space he’ll call home this fall. But when Brazil was introduced before the game, the Wizards big man was given an ovation that rivaled those given to Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
“It was great,” Nene said after scoring eight points with six rebounds and a blocked shot. “The fans, they make a lot of noise back there for the U.S. and for myself and I want to say thank you for the fans, the Wizards fans. It was good to be back here. That’s my home now and I hope this energy comes for the season.”
Back with the Brazilian national team after sitting out the Olympic qualifying tournament last summer while awaiting his free agent deal with Denver, Nene is focused on helping his native country leave a positive impression in London before it hosts the Olympics in 2016.
But he also expressed his excitement over the direction of his current NBA employer. Coach Randy Wittman, whom Nene endorsed for a return, flew back from Wizards summer league in Las Vegas to meet with Nene before the game.
“It was good moves,” said Nene, who arrived from Denver at the trade deadline. “Bradley Beal is a great kid. Very mature for his age and very talented. The trade [for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza] was a great addition for the team. For sure, Coach Randy is going to be really, really happy.”
Nene suited up on Monday on arguably the most talented team for which he has played in Washington this year. Hard to imagine that the 20-win Wizards – no matter how well they finished the season after Nene arrived – would have been able to build a 10-point first-quarter lead against the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Bryant and Durant.
Brazil was stocked with four current NBA players, with Nene, Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter and free agent guard Leandro Barbosa. It also had Spanish League star Marcelo Huertas of FC Barcelona and former NBA guard Alex Garcia, whose NBA career actually came to an end in Washington nearly eight years ago when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament as a member of the New Orleans Hornets.
Huertas and Garcia gave the U.S. the most trouble, with their ability to break down the defense and get to the rim. Huertas had 13 assists – two more than Team USA - and Garcia had 12 of his 14 points to help Brazil lead 27-17 after the first quarter. Brazil’s big men controlled the glass, outrebounding the Americans, 38-30. Varejao had 13. Led by legendary coach Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, Brazil also helped limit the U.S. to just 40.8 percent – though Team USA missed several easy baskets, including an alley-oop dunk that Tyson Chandler rammed onto the front of the rim.
“We try to do what we could,” Nene said. “Did a lot of things on defense to neutralize the shot. But that worked in the first half, but these guys are great. We lost control a little bit in the third quarter, but I thought we did really, really good. It was great, because we just work what we did in practice.”
“It was special too, because you don’t play the best team in the world every day,” Nene said. “We’re going to remember this moment.”
Brazil will be in the same pool as the United States when the Olympic tournament begins on July 29 in London. Brazil will be making its 15th appearance in the Olympics but it hasn’t participated since finishing sixth in 1996 and hasn’t medaled since 1964.
When asked about Brazil’s chances to come away with a medal this time, Nene said, “If we continue to play hard and play together and believe in each other, we’re going to have great results. I don’t like to say how we’re going to do. All I can promise is that we’re going to work hard to be in the best position we can.”
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