Everything was going exactly right for Canada in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals. The lead was well into double digits. Slovenia’s Luka Doncic had been exiled to the locker room after being assessed a second technical foul. With the semifinals beckoning, there were but a few more minutes of basketball to transact.
What could go wrong?
How dare one ask this question of Canada Basketball?
As evidenced by the country’s history in this sport, just about anything.
And it seemed everything would after Slovenia sliced a 17-point disadvantage to nine and Klemin Prepelic lined up a 3-point attempt that might have made this a two-possession game with 3:34 left. Maybe the old Canada would have seen that shot drop. Not today, though. And when that reprieve was delivered, the new Canada responded with superstar point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s defensive rebound, an offensive rebound by RJ Barrett of teammate Kelly Olynyk’s missed three and then a driving layup by SGA to push the lead back to double figures.
This is a different Canada basketball, and a first-ever semifinal appearance at the FIBA World Cup is all the proof you need – but maybe not all the proof you’ll get.
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The final accounting will show Doncic was DQ’d, but Canada did not need him gone in order to cross the finish line first. He scored 26 points and passed for five assists in his 30 minutes, but the demonic defense of Brooks (and others) coerced him into an 8-of-20 shooting performance. Doncic’s team was behind by 16 points when he drove and missed his final attempt, then complained about the absence of a foul call when what had been absent, in fact, was any substantive contact from a defender.
Doncic is a challenge to officiate at the international level because officials are predisposed to allow greater physical contact than in an NBA game, and because he most often does not so much blow past defenders as gradually advance through them.
Brooks was not popular with the Manila crowd that greeted Doncic like a hero – he, too, was ejected, in his case for taunting an opponent — but he was effective at limiting his opponent’s destructive capabilities.
“I think Dillon played great. He was very physical, like he always does,” Doncic said afterward. “A lot of people don’t like him, but I respect him for what he does. He does that stuff really good.”
This Canada team is loaded with significant NBA players, from first-team All-NBA selection Gilgeous-Alexander and rugged wing Lugentz Dort of the Thunder to playoff starter Brooks of the Grizzlies and Barrett of the Knicks to veteran big man Dwight Powell – Doncic’s teammate with the Mavericks.
Canada has had NBA players for decades, though, and it hasn’t mattered to the success of the national team. They too often were unavailable or uninterested in international tournaments. They are missing NBA champ Jamal Murray, who would make them an even greater threat for the title, but Canada are long past the days when the list of big-time pros who weren’t on the national team roster was far longer than those who competed.
Until their victory over Spain earlier in this tournament qualified them for the 2024 Olympics, they had missed the Games every four years since 2000. Steve Nash was near the peak of his career during that tournament, but after winning their group they fell into a huge hole by halftime and were upset by France in the quarterfinals.
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At the 2019 World Cup, with guard Cory Joseph as the team’s most prominent player, they finished third in their group, failed to advance and wound up in 21st place. That was their best performance in almost two decades.
What is occurring in the Philippines, though, first was suggested by Barrett’s brilliance in a semifinal victory against the United States at the 2017 U-19 World Cup, when the Americans tried a series of defenders against him but he smoked them all for 38 points. Canada won their first men’s gold medal two days later.
There were echoes of that day ringing through the third quarter Wednesday against Slovenia, when Barrett carried Canada from a 50-all halftime tie toward an 80-71 lead 10 minutes later. After missing a relatively uncontested layup off a Gilgeous-Alexander steal in the opening seconds, Barrett responded with 11 of his 24 points, including a steal and slam and a 3-pointer. He opened the fourth quarter with a 3-point play on a slam dunk from Olynyk’s sweet pass. Slovenia suddenly found itself chasing a game it never would catch.
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“I’m very proud of RJ: how aggressive he was, how he ran the floor, and how he rebounded the ball,” coach Jordi Hernandez told reporters. “With Shai, he led the team in defensive rebounds … RJ did his job today at a high level, and that’s one of the reasons why we won the game.”
In the semifinals, Canada will face Serbia, which does not have NBA MVP Nikola Jokic but blew past Lithuania in the semis behind Bogdan Bogdanovic’s 21 points. If you’re wondering if Serbia is beatable, consider that Italy – a 37-point victim against the U.S. in the quarters – knocked them off in a second-round game that mattered. Having already survived a tough first-round group that included France and Latvia, and a second-round group that included Spain and Brazil, Canada has reason to feel optimistic.
That’s something entirely new.