MADRID – It’s easy to forget how much of an impact Anderson Varejao can make on a game. The little things he does don’t mean much when his team is losing more than twice as many games as it’s winning, like the Cleveland Cavaliers have done over the last four years.
Come Oct. 30, when the Cavs tip off the 2014-15 season with LeBron James back and Kevin Love on board, Varejao is going to matter again.
In fact, Varejao matters right now, with Brazil having a chance to earn a medal at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The Brazilians advanced to the quarterfinals with an 85-65 victory over Argentina on Sunday, avenging losses to their South American rivals in the 2010 World Championship round of 16, 2011 FIBA Americas final and 2012 Olympics quarterfinals.
Down three at the half on Sunday, Brazil just blitzed Argentina with 52 points on its final 29 possessions (1.79 points per possession) after scoring just 33 on its first 38 (0.87). Point guard Raul Neto, whose rights are held by the Utah Jazz, came off the bench and gave his team a huge lift, scoring 21 points on 9-for-10 shooting.
“In the second half,” Tiago Splitter said afterward, “that was our team — the way we played good D, running fast breaks, finding the open man and going for offensive rebounds.”
Brazil is now 5-1 at the World Cup, looking like the tournament’s third best team behind Spain and the United States. They haven’t hidden that they want to go home with a medal.
“We came here for that,” Varejao said. “We know that it’s not going to be easy. But we prepared ourselves.”
Their NBA frontline of Nene, Splitter and Varejao is obviously seen as a strength, but it had its ups and downs in group play. On Sunday though, the trio stepped up and played is best collective game of the tournament.
The three bigs combined for just 25 of Brazil’s 85 points. But Nene and Splitter shut down Argentina’s Luis Scola, holding him to just nine points on 2-for-10 shooting. (He dropped 37 on Brazil when these two teams met in the same round four years ago.)
Varejao, meanwhile, attacked the offensive glass. He picked up five offensive rebounds, including three in a critical stretch late in the third quarter. With Brazil up five, he saved a Marquinhos Vieira miss and, as he was falling out of bounds, got the ball to Splitter under the basket for a layup. A few possessions later, he grabbed two offensive rebounds that eventually led to a Neto layup.
“I had to be aggressive, going for offensive rebounds,” Varejao said, “because they had Scola and [Andres] Nocioni [as their bigs]. We had size on them. We spoke about it. We said if we shoot the ball, crash the glass, because we have a chance to get a second-chance shot. That’s what I did.”
Varejao finished the game eight points, nine rebounds and four assists. He was doing the dirty work that we can expect him to do in Cleveland. When you have James, Love, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, you need that fifth guy to defend, rebound, set screens, and just give his team extra opportunities.
Varejao’s activity and playing time (more than 32 minutes) on Sunday are clear indications that, after playing just 146 games over the last four seasons, he’s healthy.
That’s good news for the Cavs, and good news for Brazil, who will play Serbia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. A win there would put them in position to play for that medal they seek.
It’s also good news for Varejao, who’s happy to be playing big games again.