Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca
Canada 85, Brazil 77 | Box Score
The new FIBA qualification system has given countries a chance to host more games at home, and while that has introduced a lot of complications for a program like Canada Basketball flush with NBA and EuroLeague talent, they’re making the most of their games at home. Playing in Laval on Thursday, Canada held off a fun and experienced Brazil team to improve to a perfect 4-0 in home games during their quest to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, keeping themselves in a strong qualifying position as the second round picks up.
Short on wings once again, Roy Rana opted to roll out three guards to start, playing Aaron Best alongside Cory Joseph and Kevin Pangos with the stalwarts in Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk playing in the frontcourt. That group spread the offensive touches around early, with everyone getting a shot off within the team’s first seven, although the team started a bit cold from the floor. It was a back-and-forth start in general, highlighted by Anderson Varejao answering a Thompson bucket in a fun battle of former teammates. After a collision with Varejao, Joseph became the first Canadian to score a second time, drilling a jumper. Again, the tit-for-tat played out, with Toronto Raptors Summer League center August Lima answering inside. Canada then turned things over to a bench that’s deep with talent who could be available throughout the winter, and Melvin Ejim and company responded with some solid defensive intensity to kick-start the transition game. Brazil’s bench was just as fun with Leandro Barbosa and Yugo Mateus, but Canada was able to pull out ahead by as many as nine, finishing the quarter up 22-19.
Canada threatened to pull ahead once again early in the second quarter, but Mateus and Barbosa had other ideas. Ejim and Olynyk eventually started helping them edge ahead, as Olynyk provided the offensive spark from deep while Ejim was everywhere on the defensive end. While Olynyk will draw eyeballs because of the strong box score – he had 12 points and 10 rebounds in the half – Ejim continues to be one of the team’s most important players game after game, quadrant after quadrant. Ejim made sure he caught some attention, too, throwing down a monstrous dunk in transition late in the quarter.
A late Brady Heslip jumper helped Canada extend their hold on the game a little larger, and after a forced turnover and a timeout – one that involved Pangos and Best giving Rana some spirited input – led to an Olynyk airball at the buzzer, Canada entered the break up 41-33. That eight-point lead was built primarily on a 7-of-18 mark from long-range, one of the benefits of starting three guards and a shooting big in Olynyk; five different Canadians knocked down threes, with Pangos dishing seven assists to open those up.
Pangos opted to do some scoring himself out of halftime, sticking a triple for his first points of the game. Joseph followed with a pair of nifty buckets to give Canada a game-high lead of 11 and Canada just kept pouring on from there. Olynyk kept up his strong showing with a difficult spin move inside, then protected a shot at the rim to help spring Thompson for a transition run and free throws. Brazil would flirt with counter-punching for a while, often stemming their own momentum with turnovers before finally finding their way to an 8-2 mini-run to cut the lead to five. Ejim answered, but Mateus responded right back with a big three. (Mateus really looks like a prospect to watch.) Were it not for a tremendous pass from Joseph to Ejim ahead of the buzzer, a Canada lead that once hit 13 would have been halved; instead, they entered the fourth ahead 64-56, a comfortable if uncertain margin.
Rafael Mineiro got Brazil right back to the business of chipping away with a triple to open the fourth, and Best and Olynyk decided they’d had enough of the slow unraveling, hitting back-to-back threes around an Olynyk block to go back ahead by 11. Best made it 4-of-4 from outside on the night out of a Brazil timeout, a well-timed reminder of the immense progress he made over the course of his year with Raptors 905 (that he figures to be available in the winter even if he’s not back with the 905 is a nice comfort for Canada). Brazil continued to hang around, only to be sunk by Canada’s outside shooting at every turn. Their last-ditch effort was rebutted by Ejim and Joseph threes that pushed Canada to 13-of-32 at that point (to just five triples for Brazil), and the visitors were left with under three minutes to make up 10 points. They threatened – and the specter of the point differential mattering made even an unlikely comeback worth fighting through – even making it a two-possession game in the final minute, they just couldn’t get over what had become too large and sustained a deficit. Pangos hit a pair of absolute daggers to close things out, and Canada wrapped things up to an 85-77 final.
There are plenty of places to look for positives in this one, the most obvious of which is probably Olynyk’s 20-point, 19-rebound, plus-17 performance. He set the tone and carried the load on offense, and he wasn’t alone – Thompson grabbed 12 rebounds in support, all five starters (and Ejim) scored in double-figures, Joseph and Pangos combined for 18 assists, and a handful of players who will likely be around come Monday and again in the winter contributed, showing once again that depth will be – has to be – a strength of this program now. This was as stiff a test as Canada has faced yet, and while there are more difficult ones still to come, they continue to largely handle their business in the qualification process so far.
- Canada improves to 6-1 with a +161 point differential with the victory. That keeps them atop Group F, although Brazil remains a threat at 5-2, the Dominican Republic were favored to improve to 5-2 later Thursday night, and an old rival still stands in the way.
- That is to say, Venezuela won on Thursday as well, pushing them to 6-1 and into a share of the lead of Group F with Canada. Canada has a large plus-minus edge, but their two meetings with Venezuela later in the qualifiers will be big ones. Surely, important games against Venezuela won’t make anyone uncomfortable.
- Canada plays again Monday in Chile. Expect heavy turnover for the roster for that game, with most of the NBA talent staying behind. (Grange said as much would happen, and it follows common sense with training camps opening soon and Canada needing to build chemistry for the winter windows.) Those winter windows take place Nov. 30/Dec. 3 on the road and Feb. 21/24 at home.
- As a reminder, Canada needs to finish in the top three in their pool of six or be the best fourth-place team in the Americas, with seven teams in total qualifying for the 2019 World Cup. Plenty can still happen between now and then, but Canada’s in good shape so far.
- Khem Birch left the game late in the first quarter after taking an errant poke from Leandro Barbosa. The replay didn’t look bad at all but Birch was in obvious discomfort and had to be helped to the locker room. He’d eventually return to the bench, just not the game.
- The turnout for the game in Laval was said to be quite bad. It was hard to pick up on the stream. If so, that’s pretty disappointing. Some other countries are selling out games with rabid crowds, and Canada should be more than able to match that intensity for home games. Hopefully the February games are better attended. What else is there to do in (redacted)?
- R.J. Barrett, Carl English, and others from the national program past, present, and future were in attendance in Laval. There were some NBA-level executives, as well, and of course all of the Canadians from training camp who weren’t on the roster for this one.