The biggest of those was a hot-shooting Greek team in the first half, one that bucked the general thinking it lacked outside shooting. The expectation was Greece would want to grind the game out and operate from the inside out, taking advantage of its relative size advantage. That didn’t quite materialize, which was both a positive and a negative for Canada. On one hand, it did an excellent job scheming Greece away from the rim and the offensive glass, holding it to just 32 points in the paint on the night. On the other, it took Canada a while to iron out some of the kinks in its switching and help-and-recover assignments on defence, which opened up a lot of space beyond the arc for Greece to shoot comfortably.
That resulted in an 8-of-18 mark on 3s in the first half, with six different Greek players connecting and 11 scoring in general.
“I thought we did a good job of hanging in there,” Nurse said during a halftime interview. The broadcast also caught Nurse calmly but sternly telling his team in the second quarter to “have some confidence to execute the shit we’re trying to do.”
The message reflected the situation Canada was in with no exhibition contests to get themselves ready. Every opponent will have an experience advantage as a group, and the Canadians have to learn and jell on the fly. That played out defensively, with a sharper second half where the problems came 15 or 18 seconds into a possession rather than at the first point of attack. If Canada can force opponents to grind it out for good looks and cross their fingers for better shooting variance — which came in the second half, by the way — it’s going to help create easy offence that leverages the speed advantage they should have in every matchup except maybe China.
There was also growth on the offensive end. While Nickeil Alexander-Walker helped keep the team in it with a tremendous first half, it was Barrett who shifted the tone of the game as Canada went on its major run. Greece was selling out to take Barrett’s left hand away, and he struggled to find a comfort zone against that with three first-half points. He poured in 19 in the second half, co-anchoring the offence with Wiggins’ 23. Those two, coupled with Cory Joseph’s ability to push in transition, enabled Canada to hang nearly 100 points in a 40-minute game.
“We knew it was gonna be a big learning experience, our first game together with this team against a very, very good team,” Nurse said. “Certainly happy with the result, no doubt, but most happy that we kinda learned a lot about who we are and where we’re going next.”
Canada’s first game in the tournament, in which only the winner qualifies for Tokyo, was a parody of what you would expect. Greece, having played three exhibition games and showcasing much more team experience as a whole, roasted Canada in the pick-and-roll. Canada got lost on defensive assignments. If not for Alexander-Walker’s tremendous individual offence, they would have trailed by a lot more than four at the half.
Ultimately, though, Canada had the bodies. They enacted an NBA-like switching defence, cutting down Greece’s 3-pointers and causing them to throw the ball away. Wiggins scored 23 points, while Barrett had 22. Wiggins dominated the third quarter, Barrett the fourth. Both made silly mistakes as they tried to play keep-away from Greece late. Both struggled to strike a balance between looking for their own shots and forcing them, with Barrett on the conservative extreme and Wiggins on the liberal side, in the first half.
In reality, though, their attributes are why Canada is the favourite in this sprint of a tournament. Greek coach Rick Pitino was bemoaning his team’s quick preparation, so no team is happy with the amount of training they’ve done. This is Canada’s advantage: not only are Barrett and Wiggins bucket-getters, but their length and speed allows them to get out in transition — and finish in transition — like no other team in the world, outside of the United States. In a style of play where points can be hard to come by, that ability to score an extra, say, four points a quarter on the break is huge.
Canada relied on that style at the FIBA Americas in 2015, and in a game in which they were ground down by a chippy Venezuelan squad, Canada learned its limits at the worst possible time. Back then, when they were forced into a half-court game, it was Kelly Olynyk carrying a heavy load. He’s not here this time because of his pending free agency. Against Greece, it was Wiggins getting to his spot and rising up, or Barrett taking a dribble handoff and zipping to his left to beat his slower opponents to the rim. He even dropped in a clutch 3 from the top of the key as part of his 12-point final frame.
“I know these guys. I recruited about four or five of them,” Pitino said. “The amazing thing to me is RJ Barrett, in college, couldn’t really shoot a 12-foot shot. I absolutely love players that work at their game and get better. He has a great-looking jumper. If you give him his left hand, he’s unstoppable. He’s strong, he’s tough. Obviously I’m a big Knicks fan so I’m a big RJ fan. The fact that he’s improved so much is amazing to me. If you let them get in the open court, if you let them go downhill off the bounce, you’re gonna have a tough night beating them.”
They will also be essential pieces defensively. Oklahoma City’s Luguentz Dort looks headed for the “defensive stopper” role, and he had some special moments in the second half, a big part of holding Greece to 41 points in the second half after 50 in the first. However, despite starting bigger up front, playing with only one big man — Dwight Powell in most cases — allows Canada to get more of its best players on the floor at the same time. Against Greece, you could see the mismatches the lineup construction could yield. Just as often, though, Wiggins and Barrett held their own on the post. At a similar age, Barrett is a lot stronger now than Wiggins was in his first major tournament for the senior team, and Wiggins is a lot stronger than he was back then, too. They gave up size to the likes of 7-foot-1 Georgios Papagiannis and 6-foot-11 Konstantinos Mitoglu, but they only rarely gave up position.
Two: Nick Nurse is at the wheel
The responsibility of getting the players to gel is on the coaching staff. Nurse had a week of training camp to prepare his team and to sort out his lineups, and he hit all the right buttons to record this win.
Nurse opened the game with a starting lineup featuring two bigs in Dwight Powell and Trey Lyles, which is understandable since both players are slightly undersized to play center. However, Canada looked its best when Nurse shifted to a smaller group in the second half with the 6-foot-4 Dort in place of Lyles. This arrangement allowed Canada to switch more pick-and-roll actions on defense, which cut off Greece’s lanes to the basket, while still not conceding ground in the paint. Dort was crucial on that front, not only in his ability to pressure the ball, but also with how he battled in the post to deny any interior passes.
The strength of Nurse’s team is its athleticism. That’s the one distinct advantage it holds over the other five teams in this tournament. Canada took the lead in the third by being more disruptive on defense and getting transition opportunities even against a Greek team that was dead set on sending all five guys back. Even in the half court, Canada’s wings can generally blow past their defenders to get inside the paint, with Barrett and Alexander-Walker being especially prolific tonight. Greece opened the game in a zone defense, which is a sign of respect and also something they should have stuck with for longer stretches.
Nurse’s job will be solving the puzzle with each opponent. His roster can play big or it can go small, and he has prepared it to play in various coverages. Nurse didn’t even need to break out his signature zone coverages but they will likely come out later in the tournament. This isn’t a repeat of the 2019 FIBA World Cup – Nurse has the firepower to compete this time.
It wasn’t a must-win, but for a team with big goals and a shaky history, an encouraging start would surely be welcomed — if only to keep the doubts at bay and let the good feelings start to take root and grow.
Mission accomplished, even if the real job is just getting started.
Canada’s 97-91 win Tuesday over Greece was workman-like and tense — and a 12-6 run by its opponent in the final four minutes kept it that way – but filled with plenty of evidence that they will be able to control of their own destiny in this track meet of a tournament.
The Canadians started slowly but weren’t fazed, as they pulled away the cobwebs and found some flow as the game went on.
“I think first and foremost for us we knew it was going to be a big learning experience and our first game together with this team against a very, very, good team,” said Canadian head coach Nick Nurse. “We saw their rhythm, experience, execution on display at a high level. I thought we did well to hang in there for the first half because they were playing very well and shooting very well. Guys did a great job of hanging in, making some adjustments. Thought our effort was really solid and certainly happy with the result, no doubt, but most happy that we kind of learned a lot about who we are and where we’re going next.”
The win is just a prelude to the games that really count – sudden-death semifinal and finals Saturday and Sunday, respectively, with wins in both necessary to advance to the Olympics in Tokyo. But Canada was able to work out some gremlins against a quality opponent and will have another chance to smooth things out against China on Wednesday night before the elimination round.
A win there would assure Canada a 2-0 record in Group A play, setting them up for a semifinal against the second-place team in Group B.
On opening night, the pre-tournament favourites played the part.
“We have a lot of guys that can contribute to winning basketball, that teams have to worry about,” said Andrew Wiggins, the Golden State Warriors wing who didn’t disappoint in his first game for Canada in six seasons. “It’s not just a few, there’s a lot of guys that can go out there and do damage.”
Thanks to some hot shooting, and aided by Canada’s defensive miscues, Greece raced out to an early lead. Even without two of three Antetokounmpo brothers and multiple injured starters, the Greeks were the better team through 20 minutes and took a 50-46 advantage into halftime.
The second half belonged to Canada, though. That was the team people had been waiting to see: versatile offensively, active and aggressive on defence, and lethal in transition. The hosts rattled off a dominant 35-21 run to take a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, and while Greece made a late push, Canada’s stars helped close the door. That’s where the talent disparity was damning.
Nurse used 10 players in the opener, all of whom have NBA experience under the belts and eight of which are currently in the league. Greece’s roster only featured one NBA player, Lakers forward and Giannis’ younger brother Kostas Antetokounmpo, who finished with four points in 10 minutes of action.
Canada’s two primary scorers, Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett, got off to slow starts but it was Nickeil Alexander-Walker, making his senior team debut, that carried the offence early. The 22-year-old guard, who is coming off a breakout sophomore season with the Pelicans, scored 14 of his 18 points in the second quarter and kept his team in the game until Wiggins and Barrett took over.
After scoring just three points on 1-of-4 shooting in the opening half, Barrett was more aggressive in looking for his offence and scored 19 points on 7-of-10 over the final 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Wiggins led the club with 23 points and hit a couple of crucial turnaround mid-range jumpers in the final two minutes.
“They did a great job,” Nurse said. “Part of the learning experiences is, can we get the ball where it needs to go late? I know it didn’t look like much but there was some pretty good organization there in getting those shots up and getting the spacing right and getting these two guys involved, you know RJ and Wig. So pretty good for especially for a first game, but it’s definitely nice having two guys that can score like that.”
Canada will have the talent advantage over whichever of the five other teams they face in the next five days. However, to win three more games, be the last team standing in this tournament and punch their ticket to the Olympics for the first time in 21 years, they know they can’t do it on talent alone.
They’re learning each other and building chemistry on the fly. Last week, Alexander-Walker spoke about defensive communication, a point of emphasis in camp but also something that was very much a work in progress. You could see that play out on Tuesday, especially in the first half, as they struggled to defend the pick and roll and were late on their rotations and closeouts, resulting in several wide-open threes for Greece. Many of their late-game turnovers offensively were also the product of that inexperience as a unit.
That it took a little time for Canada to get its footing is hardly a surprise. It was the first real competition this particular group ever had and blips were expected. But it is to their credit that they didn’t panic, they didn’t start relying on their individual skills. They played smart and hard.
“I thought we did well to hang in there the first half, they were playing very well and shooting well,” coach Nick Nurse said of Greece. “Our guys did a great job of hanging in, the effort was really solid.
“Certainly happy with the result, no doubt. But most happy that we learned a lot about who we are and where we’re going.”
The most relevatory aspect of the night was how seamless the duo of RJ Barrett and Andrew Wiggins were on the court together.
They combined for 45 points – Wiggins led the way with 23 — and took over in the second half offensively. Whenever Canada needed a bucket, one of the two gifted wings seemed to get it.
“We got a lot of guys that can contribute to winning basketball,” Wiggins said. “Lot of guys that teams have to worry about, not just a few, a lot of guys that can go out there and do damage.”
The Canadians were supposed to use a decided advantage in speed and athleticism to get the game at a quick pace that would suit their skills, but that’s predicated on defensive stops and transition opportunities and the hosts just didn’t get enough of them to start the game.
Once they did, though, they took control and put themselves in excellent position to at least play for the country’s first men’s Olympic berth in 21 years.
Canada was up by as many as 11 but in the dying minutes Greece cut the lead to four with just a minute to go in the game.
Wiggins would lead Canada with 23 points, one more than Barrett and five more than Alexander-Walker.
If the closeness of the game was a surprise to those outside the Canadian team, there was no such thought from within the Team Canada locker room.
“I don’t think it ever entered our minds that it wasn’t going to be really hard,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “Winning any game is really hard and when you are playing a meaningful competition against a good team, a physical team and a big team and a well-coached team, you are going to be put under some duress.
“That’s one of the things we talked about was we just had to keep playing,” Nurse said. “Hang in there, keep playing, learn, play a little harder, play a little more together. But it’s good. I’m glad the way they bounced back through it. It should help us again as part of our learning experience.
As expected, Canada was a little shaky early on, not having played a single exhibition together coming into the tournament.
Despite coming into the game heavy favourites, Canada was down by four at the half to a Greek team lacking most of its biggest names because of a combination of injury and NBA commitments.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brother Thannis were both occupied by their NBA jobs in Milwaukee with the Bucks taking on Atlanta in the NBA’s Eastern Conference final.
But Greece remains a veteran team with a long-developed cohesiveness and through the first half, that familiarity reaped benefits while the Canadians struggled to find their rhythm.
Most alarming for Canada given Nurse’s belief in a strong defensive core, were the consistently open three pointers the Greek players were seeing, not to mention the easy buckets Greece was getting in the pick and roll.
Again, a lot of this was expected given Canada’s lack of time together and experience with one another and following a break at the half, Canada’s defence and it’s aggressiveness hit a new level.
Even one game into their time together, it’s already becoming very apparent that a leader in that regard, both the defensive want-to and the aggressive, physical play is led by Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort.
Kim Gaucher, the new mother who may be forced to make the untenable choice to stop breastfeeding her months-old daughter to be able to compete in her third Olympics, was named to the 12-women Canadian team Tuesday night.
It will mean Canada will continue to press the IOC and Tokyo organizers for a compassionate exception to a “no families” policy that will leave Gaucher of having to choose to be with her daughter or represent her country.
There has been no indication Games officials are going to agree with Canada’s pleas and Gaucher, a key veteran member of the No. 4 ranked team in the world, could decide to leave her daughter, Sophie, to play.
But finding a resolution that would allow Gaucher’s daughter Sophie and husband, Ben, into Japan for the Olympics would be the easiest resolution.
“There is nothing greater than having the opportunity to pull on the red and white jersey with Canada across your chest,” Gaucher said in a release. “And to be able to do that for a third time on the world’s largest sporting stage is something I never imagined. I am so proud of the players and staff who have worked incredibly hard to earn this moment. Our goal is to inspire the next generation of great young players in our country and of course chase the podium in Tokyo.”
Gaucher still has a chance to become a three-time Olympian as does veteran centre Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a knee injury playing for the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA earlier this month. She has recovered enough to make the 12-woman squad.
“There has been no greater honour for me than representing my country on the world stage this past decade. With the pandemic, the last year and a half has felt like forever, so I can’t wait to join the team in Tokyo and put back on a Canada jersey,” Achonwa said in a statement.
“I can’t believe that I will be going to my third Olympic Games this summer. We’re focused on bringing a medal back to Canada and they say ‘third times the charm’ so hopefully, this is the summer our dreams come to fruition.”
Team Canada is, however, still stocked with veterans with a plethora of high-level international experience and core group that’s been together for years.