Canada beats Nigeria | Durant predicts Raptors won’t go to finals again; joke is he may not either…salty
The main reason why Nigeria was able to hang around was their sheer advantage in size, which led to a 13-8 offensive rebounding advantage. If the Nigerians had a big man with any type of scoring touch, they would have likely won the game.
Size will be the Achilles’ heel for Canada in the upcoming tournament. Khem Birch is the only centre who actually lives up to the billing. Past that, it’s an assortment of undersized power forwards, and even their selection at small forward is questionable. The Canadians do have scrappy guards who can dig down and win turnovers, but for the most part interior defense will be an area of weakness.
This was not exactly by choice, as the losses of Tristan Thompson and Dwight Powell tied Canada’s hands. That being said, it’s also clear that Nurse generally prefers skill over size, so it’s a trade-off that the Canadians are willing to live with. A toothpick like Wiltjer won’t win many battles in the paint, but he could knock down enough threes to force the opponent into downsizing.
Advancing past the group stage will be difficult for this reason. Lithuania is stocked with 7-footers, and the frontcourt of Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis will likely give Canada fits. Similarly, the Canadians might struggle to contain Australia, who feature two bruisers in Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut who can pummel Canada down low.
Canada won an entertaining game 96-87 after having fallen behind early (they trailed 20-14 after a sloppy first quarter); building up a 17-point lead in the third quarter on some scorching three-point shooting in the middle two frames of the game and solid defence, and then holding off Nigeria after the visitors cut it to two late in the fourth.
There were lots of bright spots. Andrew Nembhard, who is going into his second year at the University of Florida, was steady beyond his years down the stretch running the point, scoring four points and adding a slick assist to help Canada keep the lead. Kyle Wiltjer looked much improved compared to the player the Toronto Raptors cut in training camp a couple of years ago. He and Orlando Magic centre Khem Birch — a force at both ends — led Canada in scoring with 14 points each. But it was Canada’s depth that won the game – five players were in double figures and 12 players scored. Canada knocked down 15 threes after shooting 2-of-9 in the first quarter.
“Pretty happy really, with everybody’s performance,” said Nurse. “I look down and there wasn’t one guy, ‘oh, he doesn’t belong.’ I think everybody went out there and looked like they belonged on the floor in some capacity, offensively, defensively, whatever. That was encouraging.”
Before the game Nurse was musing about the quality of the European pros Canada has on the roster, most of whom are thriving in some of the most competitive and lucrative leagues overseas.
The bad news is they may be even more vital to Canada’s cause than previously imagined, depending on Olynyk’s injury.
As the team was introduced before the game at Mattamy Athletic Centre, the biggest cheer was reserved for Nurse. It’s not a surprise: Any player who might rival Nurse’s popularity isn’t in red and white this summer, and the Raptors’ championship made Nurse a rock star, sometimes even literally.
However, Nurse’s summertime gig might give us as much insight into his tactical skills as last year’s playoff run did. Make no mistake, Nurse was a crucial cog in the Raptors’ title, showing a tremendous feel for his roster in massive moments. That team, of course, had Kawhi Leonard, perhaps the game’s ultimate stylistic and emotional stabilizer. While still talented, this season’s Raptors won’t have him. The Raptors were very good when Leonard sat last season, but to organize themselves without an established lead scorer next season will be challenging.
The situation with Canada is that to the nth degree. In Olynyk, Canada has one player who is used to getting off his own shot, at least internationally. (As it happened, Olynyk slipped on a wet spot in the third quarter on Wednesday, leaving the game for X-rays. Nurse said he believed it was a knee injury.) Everything else Canada does is going to have to come in transition or off movement encouraged by Nurse’s offence.
For one night, it worked, as Canada got up an impressive 36 3-pointers in 40 minutes, knocking in 15 of them. Kyle Wiltjer and Brady Heslip each hit four 3-pointers, and they figure to play huge roles for this team as floor spacers now that Canada’s elite wing players will not be at the World Cup.
A full roster of NBA players won’t compete for Canada at the FIBA World Cup.
No RJ Barrett. No Andrew Wiggins. No Tristan Thompson. No Jamal Murray. No Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. How about Dwight Powell, Brandon Clarke, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dillon Brooks, Trey Lyles, Mfiondu Kabengele, Nik Stauskas? All gone, too.
Should Canada finish among the top two Americas teams at the upcoming tournament in China, it’ll qualify for men’s basketball at the Olympics for the first time since 2000. Failing that, the team will enter a last-chance qualifying tournament it must win next summer.
But before all that, head coach Nick Nurse, general manager Rowan Barrett and the rest of the Canada Basketball staff must choose its 12-player roster.
For his part, Nurse remains confident Canada can field a team that will contend for an Olympic spot.
“I know it’s a hot topic but it hasn’t entered my mind who isn’t here. I can’t function that way. I don’t want to function that way,” Nurse told Harrison Sanford, host of Inside the Green Room with former Toronto Raptor Danny Green.
“I’ve got to go with what we got and I’m excited. I keep using the word ‘exhilarated.’ This is a hell of an honour for me to be coaching the Canadian national team and with the chance to do well in the World Cup. We’re going to the World Cup, man, that’s a hell of a tournament and a chance to go to the Olympics. So it’s a lifelong dream of mine.”
Only 19 of the original 29 training camp invitees remain. Here’s the full list we’re working with.
Ejim always seemed a relative lock for the roster, so the disappointing turnout has not affected him directly in that way. He is too experienced, too versatile and too important a leader within the program — not to mention a very good FIBA-style forward — to have been at risk of being cut even with an NBA-heavy roster. Instead, the turnout has shifted his likely role and perhaps his position.
Initially penciled in as maybe the team’s backup power forward, Ejim will be one of several players asked to shift slightly out of position at times. He might even start at small forward, as the training camp roster of 19 is heavy on point guards and natural frontcourt players, to the extent that head coach Nick Nurse named Ejim, lengthy collegiate point guard Andrew Nembhard, Phil and Thomas Scrubb, and Raptors camp hopeful Oshae Brissett as options to see time there. Playing with dual point guards and an off-guard up a position seems like the likeliest outcome, but Ejim and even Chris Boucher could see time in larger units.
That’s not entirely unfamiliar to Ejim, whose game has always existed in the undefined space between forward spots. That positional versatility, along with a versatile skill set, has made him somewhat of a Swiss Army knife for the carousel of coaches during the qualifying process and in earlier tournaments. Nurse hasn’t grown too familiar with him just yet, but he sounds impressed — if a little surprised — at everything Ejim’s been able to offer so far.
“Melvin, he’s hard work and energy, in, out. You never really know what you’re going to get,” Nurse said with a laugh. “He’s kind of an X-factor type of guy. I like him. I’ve liked him for a long time. He went to Iowa State. That always helps, too. I favour him a little bit.”
What Nurse asks of Ejim could depend in part on how other camp battles shake out. A roster of 17 will be trimmed to 15 after a pair of exhibitions, and then to 12 following five more games. Ejim is among a core six or seven, and he can slot into different roles depending on how Nurse and company opt to structure the roster positionally and skill-wise. If they’re as heavy on point guards and shooting as they think they might be, maybe Ejim spends his time inside with a shooting big inverted to play outside. (Ejim shot 38.3 percent on a modest volume of 3s last year but that skill has always oscillated for him.) He might be tasked with guarding on the perimeter or banging inside. In any case, his rebounding will be very important, and Nurse has even given him extended freedom to push with the ball in transition when he comes down with a rebound.
Most notably for Canada, Ejim will likely be asked to fill in on the wing at the small forward spot, an obvious area of weakness for Canada. Despite his six-foot-seven frame, Ejim is actually a more natural power forward, but may have no choice but to slide into the three-spot for Canada.
But while the four might be where Ejim has found his most success, his versatility will allow him to play small forward without much issue because, as Nurse said, “it doesn’t really matter three or four for us.”
“Doesn’t really change. You can be on multiple positions the way that we’re playing,” said Ejim of playing the three. “I don’t think much really changes, whatever position I’m in.”
One of Canada’s strengths heading into the World Cup will be its versatility and it looks like Nurse will be stretching the limits of his team’s malleability, even asking Ejim to do more than he has in the past.
“I think he’s been leaning on different guys in different positions throughout the training camp so far,” said Ejim. “He’s definitely been telling me to do different things that I haven’t been doing my entire career, I would say. Just stuff like bringing up the ball and initiating the offence or doing different things, and I think that’s an aspect where I can grow and an aspect that he’s going to help me grow in as well.”
Another new role for Ejim is, because of his veteran status, as a leader.
Nobody is expecting Boucher, who will turn 27 in January, to become the next most improved player. However, as Boucher tries to gain a foothold in the NBA, he at least has a model to examine. Boucher was last year’s MVP and defensive player of the year in the G-League, but his time with the big club showed his shortcomings — he is not strong enough to be a post defender and his offensive style is chaotic. His contract does not fully guarantee until the start of the regular season, so it is still possible he is not on this upcoming season’s Raptors, although that feels unlikely. If he makes the team, he will be in a fight for minutes in the front court behind Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and, yes, Siakam.
The Raptors are moderately invested in Boucher, and have been emphasizing a few different things as he develops. They plan on him playing more on the wing in addition to centre, which would allow him to improve as a perimeter defender. Boucher is a tremendous shot-blocker and shot-deterrent at the rim — that is hugely valuable — but he is overeager elsewhere on that end. Increased reps should allow him to parlay his wingspan and quickness into a more steady, improved performance.
The offensive end is more intriguing, because we just saw how a player can blossom when given more of a leash in Siakam’s case. Again, Boucher is not Siakam, as he has never had anything like Siakam’s second NBA season as part of the Bench Mob. At 26, Boucher is also a year older than Siakam, himself old for a prospect before his breakout.
With all that in mind, it is encouraging that the Raptors are not merely settling on Boucher becoming a shot-blocking specialist. That is where his time with Canada Basketball could help him.
When he was escorted off the Scotiabank Arena almost two months ago, he was in a daze. Unable to process what had just occurred, all he knew was that he was being helped to the locker room. Initially, he was met with an awful gesture of cheers and applause from fans in attendance before Raptors players signaled the crowd to stop.
Durant doesn’t remember hearing the fans that night, but he has something for them to hear now.
“It will probably be the last time they will be in the Finals,” Durant told Yahoo Sports with a smirk.
Durant attempted to watch the remainder of Game 5 from his hotel room with his business partner, Rich Kleiman, and his Nike representative, Chuck Terrell, but dealing with a whirlwind of emotions, he turned the channel, only to switch it back a few minutes later to cheer on his teammates.
“Yeah, I still think about that night,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “Every experience I’ve been through in the league is obviously always ingrained in my mind, but that one is definitely always going to be a huge part of my career because it’s the biggest stage and the type of injury I had. But now I look at it as me just going out there playing basketball, and I happened to get hurt. And now I’m just waiting to get back. I know it’s a huge deal to everybody else, but I just try to take it on the chin and keep it moving.”
14. Toronto Raptors (13.2): Kyle Lowry (6.7), Pascal Siakam (3.9), Marc Gasol (2.6)
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