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Rio de Janeiro
Promoted to Brazil's starting lineup for the second half Sunday, Jazz point guard Raul Neto drove into the lane and hit a jump shot on the home team's first possession.
He nearly launched a Brazilian revolution. Neto and his teammates could not quite complete a comeback from 29 points down, but they succeeded in making his Olympic debut much more interesting than would have seemed imaginable as of halftime.
"That's the real Brazil," Neto said, summarizing a second half when his team came within four points of Lithuania in the last two minutes and had a shot to get even closer in an eventual 82-76 loss.
"We had two different teams," Neto said.
And he didn't say this, but he was the difference-maker. Neto played the entire second half as Brazil outscored Lithuania by 23 points, after appearing for five-plus minutes of the first half in relief of veteran point guard Marcelo Huertas of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Neto finished with 14 points, three rebounds and two assists in an inspiring effort that should lead to a starting role for the rest of this tournament even if he said, "Nothing changed."
He always makes team-first statements like that, whether he's in Brazil or Utah. After starting 53 games as a rookie, Neto accepted a demotion to the bench in late February and remained in the rotation when the Jazz traded for Shelvin Mack from Atlanta. He knows he faces a battle for any playing time this season with the arrival of George Hill from Indiana and the return of Dante Exum from a knee injury, even with Trey Burke having been traded to Washington.
Staying in character, Neto said Hill will be "a great player to be around; I hope I learn a lot [from] him."
With the overstocking of Neto's position in 2016-17, his immediate future with the Jazz is not all that promising. Yet anyone who witnessed him in this setting Sunday came away believing he's a big part of Brazil's present. And at age 24, some possibilities remain for him with the Jazz in the years to come.
Neto was a popular subject after this game. Still in uniform, he fielded questions in Portugese for 25 minutes, flexing his legs as he stood in the interview zone. He later said in English, "Of course, the feeling is not the best, because we didn't win the game," but there was a lot to like about Brazil's finish.
Remarkably, the home crowd that filled much of the 16,000-seat Carioca Arena stayed involved with the team, even after Brazil trailed 58-29 at halftime. And when the rally got to a point of allowing for reasonable hope of an epic victory? Wow. The atmosphere almost reached a soccer level.
OK, that's an exaggeration. But the fans were into it, and the way Neto and his teammates responded, they created hope for the rest of this tournament. Brazil next plays Spain, the Group B favorite, followed by Croatia, Argentina and Nigeria.
Neto and his teammates can only hope to reprise their showing of Sunday's second half when, as he said, Brazil "played happy."
The Jazzman contributed to the joy, almost to the end.
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