Canada is once again one win from qualifying for the Olympics for the first time since 2000.
With a 78-72 victory over New Zealand on Saturday, Canada now awaits the winner of France-Turkey in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament final on Sunday morning (9 a.m. ET on TSN 2/4) (Box Score). Led by 20 points from Cory Joseph and buoyed by enormous efforts from Melvin Ejim and Tristan Thompson, Canada was able to hold off a very game, scrappy, and energetic New Zealand squad that nearly caused flashbacks to the FIBA Americas semifinal a year ago.
Following the Haka (swoon), the game opened with what was easily Canada’s worst defensive quarter of the tournament so far. New Zealand really pushed the tempo to make Canada uncomfortable in transition, and the result at one point was seven consecutive made field goals for the Kiwis. They shot 9-of-21 overall but went 4-of-8 on threes and forced five Canadian turnovers.
Meanwhile, the Canadian offense was effective scoring but a little scattered and careless with the ball. They needed all of Joseph’s eight pace-settling scores, including a ridiculous spin move baseline. Ejim had a great sequence, too (not surprising), where he helped kill a Tall Black run with a three and a cutting layup sandwiched around a big post stop. And Khem Birch provided a massive block that keyed a Brady Heslip transition run to tie the game, only for Canada to sleep on Shea Ili for a bucket to secure the lead through one.
The second started out much the same, with a 5-0 New Zealand run pushing the lead to seven. Joseph checked in, and in the least surprising development of the tournament, Canada immediately went on an 17-3 run of their own. It really can’t be overstated how important Joseph’s been to the Canadians in three games, not just because they’re running two-point guard sets to make up for the dearth of wing, but because most of the roster struggles to create its own shot, and Joseph makes everything so much easier for everyone else while still getting into the paint for himself. (He’s likely going to draw Nicolas Batum tomorrow as a result.) According to my spreadsheet, he has all of the RPM, BPM, PER, WS, and plus-minus are “all of it.” He has all of the advanced stats in the qualifier.
That run was punctuated by a tough Thompson bucket against a pair of defenders, a nice reward after the barrel full of offensive rebounds he corralled only to see his teammates miss threes off of them. Thompson was also a big part of the defensive turnaround in that second quarter, where the Kiwis shot 7-of-16 and couldn’t force a single turnover to fuel the transition attack. Nebraska’s Tai Jack Webster, though, hit a major basket as the half ended to send the game into the break tied 42-42. (As a side note, I thought it was pretty cool to have the Webster brothers vs. the Scrubb brothers in this one. Family first, yo.)
Naturally, Joseph started the second half with a 3-point play. Is there anything he can’t do? (Answer: Go broke?) The Tall Blacks, playing the second half without Isaac Fotu and rendered a little smaller, looked to push the tempo, while Canada gave Thomas Scrubb a very quick hook for Ejim. Ejim promptly chased down and destroyed a Robert Loe fastbreak layup out of nowhere, because Ejim is dope. Canada’s spacing remained a huge issue, with their struggles beyond the arc continuing and allowing New Zealand to collapse inside at will without much threat of comeuppance, which also left Canada’s bigs working in heavy traffic after offensive boards.
And so Joseph was mostly left to score alone, and he had all of his 20 points by the time the third ended. Thanks in part to his surge, Canada held a 58-54 lead entering the fourth, as stomach-tightening a lead as you can imagine given last summer’s semi-final outcome.
Things were back-and-forth. Thomas Abercrombie hit a big three, only for Thompson to answer with a tip-in off of a one-second out-of-bounds play. Canada missed a three, then got a stop, then missed a three. Tai Webster scored against Joseph, then drew a foul against him, then dished a dime for a lead. Ejim had a great hook shot with a foul, and then Thompson had a great tip-in. It continued like that, with each team answering possession by possession, and the game was tied at 69 (nice) with four minutes to play. (It would have been a hell of a game were it not so nerve-wracking, and had the officials not decided to start calling ticky-tack fouls both ways to slow things to a grind and force each team into foul trouble.)
Head coach Jay Triano opted to go conservative with Joseph’s four fouls, and big free throws from Thompson and a major perimeter block from Ejim helped keep things in check (a surprise given Canada was a plus-12 in Joseph’s 31:09 and minus-6 in 8:51 he sat). Joseph returned to a 3-point lead, and the Canadians managed to force a pair of turnovers down the stretch. Dribbling out the clock, Joseph missed a tough lefty finger-roll, but Ejim was there with a huge put-back and-one to give Canada a six-point lead and essentially seal the game.
It wasn’t clean and it wasn’t easy. It shouldn’t have been – New Zealand is solid and it was a semifinal game in a very important tournament. Canada continues to be haunted by spacing issues (they’re 13-of-56 on threes in the tournament and struggled from the line again Saturday), they need to clean up their transition defense, and they’ll need to play what amounts to a perfect game if they draw France, as expected, tomorrow.
That’s something they can do. France will be the favorite, but this Canadian team is 3-0, and it only takes one game to get it done. It’s win and go to Brazil or lose and try again next Olympic cycle. From the moment they lost to Venezuela last year, they’ve been building to this opportunity. Tomorrow, they have it.