Cory Joseph is a national treasure.
That’s the first takeaway from Canada’s 77-69 victory over Turkey to begin their Olympic Qualifying Tournament on Tuesday morning (Box Score). The long-time stalwart of the national program, Joseph proved to be the team’s best player, as expected. Working alongside Tyler Ennis to navigate tight spacing around a sea of enormous Turkish players, Joseph was magnificent, pushing the tempo in transition, changing speeds in the half court, and setting up teammates for a buffet of quality looks.
Not only does Joseph’s earlier apprenticeship under potential tournament finals opponent Tony Parker shine through in the FIBA format, it’s clear that Ennis is getting those same lessons second-hand. Ennis looked better than he has at pretty much any point in his professional career so far, even on a poor shooting night, proving head coach Jay Triano wise for starting dual point guards in the face of a dearth of wing depth.(Phil Scrubb was really solid and looked much improved, too.) The three point guards combined for 37 points, nine assists, just four turnovers, and a plus-18. Most of that production was Joseph (21 points, five assists), but if lineup data were available, it would likely show the two-guard sets were Canada’s best.
Mah man Cory Joseph! pic.twitter.com/2MVvb2ERt3
— carlos tanada (@carlostanada7) July 5, 2016
It was that look that helped Canada to a strong start and, more notably, their game-changing run to start the third quarter. It was that latter run that extended the lead to 16 at one point, giving Canada a cushion as Turkey fought back later in the frame and into the fourth quarter.
And Canada bent. They got a little sloppy with their transition defense, began struggling some with Turkey’s size, and allowed their opponent a steady parade to the free-throw line. Canada earned the win, to be clear, but their lives were made easier by Turkey’s complete inability to capitalize on those free throws (19-of-34) and an ice-cold morning from long-range (6-of-26).
But Canada didn’t break, and their two best defenders on the day came up in huge spots in the fourth quarter. With the lead down to nine and Khem Birch fighting admirably on the block, Melvin Ejim came with help to absolutely erase an attempt at the rim with seven minutes to go, snuffing out any Turkish momentum. And after Turkey cut the lead back down to six in the closing seconds, Tristan Thompson – a favorite of the Manila crowd, according to a friend of the site who was on hand – scampered around the 3-point line defending and then beat everyone for a loose ball back at the rim. Everyone knows what Thompson brings to the table, and his leadership was on full display whenever play was dead or he was on the bench. Ejim may be less familiar to fans, but his growth was always going to be important to this team, and he managed to make a major impact around foul trouble.
The win should be a big confidence boost for the Canadians, who managed to match rebounding with a bigger squad, stayed composed as their lead was chipped away, and did well to protect the ball throughout the game. Those elements are going to be key if and when they run up against France, something they may be able to avoid until the tournament final if they can take care of Senegal on Wednesday. That’s putting the cart before the horse, as it were, as Senegal won’t be an easy out. Canada also has a few areas it can clean up, namely their transition defense. They’ll also need to find ways of getting their guards a little more space within the confines of a rotation that doesn’t have a great deal of hooting outside of Brady Heslip, though the team’s 7-of-19 mark Tuesday was encouraging.
Also encouraging was the team’s defense, which should be it’s calling card in the tournament. They held up against a more physically imposing opponent, used their bigs to chase and contest shooters, and didn’t give up the rim as a result. Omer Asik was a non-factor outside of the glass, Semih Erden was kept quiet, and Cedi Osman, a potential import for the Cleveland Cavaliers this coming season, was mostly neutralized in the half-court before injuring his left ankle.
Cedi Osman işte bu pozisyonda sol ayak bileğini burkarak oyunu terk etmek zorunda kaldı! pic.twitter.com/AhgMbp6A1l
— Basket Dergisi (@basketdergisi) July 5, 2016
This is a big first step. Canada has to play nearly perfect basketball in this tournament, because only the overall winner advances. On paper, Turkey was the second biggest test they were likely to face, and Canada turned in a strong opening performance. There’s no time or room for let-up, and Joseph and Thompson don’t seem likely to allow that to happen. It’s a great start, but there’s a lot of work to be done still.
You can check out the full broadcast schedule and read more about the team here.