Tall Blacks x 2019 FIBA World Cup: Game 1 vs Brazil

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The thing with the Tall Blacks on the big stage is that they’re still the underdogs. It’s all been pretty promising for them lately, with new and unprecedented depth in the squad and a healthy slip into Asian qualifying amidst the rise of basketball amongst schools and at grassroots, yeah sweet as. But those are examples of New Zealand basketball being compared to New Zealand basketball and the same things are happening overseas on a bigger scale. The NBA has never been so global. Basketball has never been so global. It certainly ain’t getting easier for a small nation in the Pacific Ocean.

So when the Tall Blacks came up against Brazil in their World Cup opener it didn’t matter how well they’d gone in their extended preparations. Those preparations are just ways of ensuring they’re at their best as they try to bridge the talent gap that already exists between them and their opponents. This Brazilian squad had plenty of NBA experience in it. Anderson Varejao, Marcelinho Huertas, Alex Garcia, Bruno Caboclo, Leandro Barbosa, Marquinhos Vieira, Cristiano Felicio… all with varying degrees of NBA tasters at some point or another (Caboclo and Felicio are the current jokers, at the Grizzlies and Bulls respectively, while Varejao and Barbosa each have NBA championship rings). Whereas our squad has some NBA summer league experience and a little NBA preseason but yeah nah. It’s a pretty rude wakeup call when you really stop and look at what we were coming up against.

But Paul Henare’s a clever bugger and the way the Tall Blacks began this game it was a smooth transition from what was a pretty successful prep tour... albeit for only one win. But that’s fine because the results aren’t as important as the processes in those friendlies, it’s all about putting this team in the best situation to succeed in China, and here when it mattered we saw improved shooting and we saw no hint of the early defensive lapses that had blinded their first games against Japan and Canada. We also saw a continued determination to push the pace and tire out those old legs in that Brazil squad and with Shea Ili looking completely healthy that strategy was as useful as it’s been yet. The Tall Blacks don’t have a big rebounding centre like some of these other fellas but they rebound well as a team, scrapping above their weight class (five players ended with at least five rebounds here for NZ). Pretty bloody impressive, actually.

Tell you what, Shea Ili even took a pop at a step back three in that first quarter. It’s been a while since he last had the confidence to crack one of those. He missed… but he did drill another triple later on. And with Corey Webster stepping up to the task of shooter extraordinaire the plan was working as well as it possibly could. Rushing downhill early in those possessions can be risky because you’re extending the number of possessions in the game, meaning you’ve gotta be hitting your shots in order to keep up with that pace you want to play at. Doesn’t matter how uncomfortable you make it for the others if everything’s clanging off the rim. Speaking of…

Guts, bro. On Tommy’s 100th cap too. Abercrombie was one bloke who didn’t seem to quite have it, Tai Webster was another after his shocking jump shooting in the warmups seems to have affected his confidence and honestly he was getting out played by Ili in that first half. Came back strong in the second as he figured out his way to the hoop a few times, plus he was contributing elsewhere on the box score too, so not the worst. Just not at his best either. Oh and Rob Loe missed his first five triples which is never a good thing.

All that just combined to show what the Tall Blacks were up against though. The Brazilians could roll out their rotations and wait for the next dude to rise to the occasion if someone else wasn’t. New Zealand are more reliant on their best players and those best players really have to be running at close to a hundy percent the entire way because those little lapses can be fatal. There was almost one late in the second quarter. A few missed shots piled up and instead of stretching it out to a nice lead at HT the Tall Blacks were in danger of getting back into the locker room with a little deficit instead. But then Corey Webster hit a couple trebles and we finished the half tied at 50-50. Even then it was only because of an and-one situation with 1.4 seconds on the clock after Rafa Luz had grabbed an offensive rebound.

But you already know by now that things went awry in the third quarter. Brazil bought in 39 year old defensive mastermind Alex Garcia to smother Corey Webster and his 17 first half points and it worked a treat, with Corey only getting up two missed shot attempts all quarter. A few solid defensive plays and some missed shots from the Brazilians meant we were suddenly in a defensive grind and more than four minutes into the frame Brazil were still yet to add to their half-time score, the Tall Blacks limping their way to a 56-50 lead. Then Alex Garcia got open under the rim from a Marcelinho Huertas feed and it all changed in a hurry. Garcia was at it again straight after as he buried a triple from out front despite one of the ugliest shot motions you’ll ever see… and that was the pivot on which this game turned.

The floodgates were threatening to burst but were still holding on with a creak as Garcia’s triple swished through. There was still a chance that we could halt the run and stay in the contest. So you can look at the flood that followed, with Brazil scoring 28 points in six minutes, and correctly see tha as the point where it all got away but don’t forget that right at that pivotal time, with the game teetering, the Tall Blacks missed four quick free throws between Tai Webster, Rob Loe, and Shea Ili. We couldn’t keep the scoreboard ticking over, we allowed Brazil to get on a cheeky run, and before we knew they had swept us away. Down by 16 points at the end of the third, having been up by six with six minutes to go in that quarter.

Those are the fine margins at this level, the margins of error that the Tall Blacks simply cannot afford. Brazil played outstanding basketball over that stretch and the Tall Blacks never lost that spirit or energy despite the swing in momentum… they just lost their execution under pressure. Turnovers crept into the game and once it started slipping away they didn’t have the ability to lock things down again. We’ve gotta be realistic about it all, you know? Underdog teams in a tournament like this have to be so completely on their game for the entire forty minutes if they want to win. The Tall Blacks know this. Paul Henare knows this. But it doesn’t automatically happen just because you’re aware and prepared, and fair play to Brazil because the introduction of Alex Garcia, who scored 14 points in the second half after not even taking the court in the first half, was a brilliant game-changer.

To be fair, the Tall Blacks did keep it interesting in the final frame. Shea Ili was going zero to a hundy at the drop of a rebound and Rob Loe finally found his shooting touch with a couple trebles to keep it funky. When Corey Webster finally got his first bucket of the second half, a silky layup with 1:32 on the clock, we were down to an 8-point game. But the Tall Blacks couldn’t grab the rebounds they needed and they couldn’t get the stops they needed. It got as close as six points with an Abercrombie and-one with 32 seconds remaining but Barbosa wasn’t pissing around at the free throw line. Final score was 102-94.

Corey Webster led the way with 19 points for NZ with five triples though he only scored 2pts in the second half. Isaac Fotu added 17 and Shea Ili 16 in pretty strong efforts from those two while Rob Loe bagged 11pts/9rebs and Tai Webster had 12pts/8reb/4ast… though he also had six turnovers. Rough stuff for Finn Delany who was kept scoreless in fifteen minutes (and was a -15 plus-minus). Less than six minutes for Alex Pledger too, which is understandable given the way they want to play but he might have been able to do something about the eight offensive rebounds that Cristiano Felicio hoarded along the way.

Brazil had ten different players play at least 14 minutes and they had eleven different scorers (guts to Augusto Lima, the only one who missed out). Leandrinho Barbosa led the way with 22 points. The team shooting and rebounding stats actually don’t look too shabby from the Tall Blacks, they just had a few too many turnovers and they didn’t have the bench depth to compete with Brazil – whose bench scored 64 of their 102 points. We had to be close to perfect the whole way and there were six minutes where we weren’t, while they could afford to mix and match their deep roster until they found a formula that worked.

Which means that Montenegro on Tuesday night is pretty much a must-win now, especially given how tough Greece look to be for that third group game – Greece beat Montenegro 85-60 last night so there you go. And that was with Giannis Antetokounmpo only playing fifteen minutes. But while Montenegro are the weakest of out three opponents, the big man threat of Nikola Vucevic something that the Tall Blacks simply don’t have an answer too. Just gotta work around him, s’pose. Tuesday night at 8pm, that one. Gotta win it to stay in it.

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