“I noticed something the first day these guys came together for camp,” Nick Nurse told media ahead of Saturday’s semi-final about the newly assembled Canadian roster. “I just noticed a kind of energetic reunion — a joyous reunion — these guys haven’t seen each other for a while… and I thought it was interesting to see them come together just in the hallway when they were checking into the hotel.”
“I thought there was something already going [on] there.”
Team Canada’s spirits are high here in Victoria, B.C., and they have been ever since they met for training camp two weeks ago, according to Nurse. Since coming to Victoria, the team has played with an encouraging amount of fun, appearing glad to be with one another competing for their country.
It’s a good thing too: Canada is probably the least experienced team of the final four remaining in the Olympic qualifying tournament, with the least international experience and the least experience playing together. With their first win-or-go-home game of the tournament coming on Saturday afternoon against the Czech Republic, there appears to be no angst hanging over this team. Instead, it’s positivity.
“The fact we get to play the game we love for our country is already going to put a pep in our step, if you will, and have us motivated to work even harder and compete even harder,” Dwight Powell said.
“But to have the opportunity here to win meaningful games in a situation where we could make it to the highest stage of international basketball in the Olympics… I think the thing we’re most positive about and carrying in our minds is the opportunity to win.”
“They’re super passionate,” Nurse said. “I told you guys this the first time I talked to you, the heart is the key to this team and it’s there.”
Team Canada will get that opportunity to win on Saturday against a Czech team that hasn’t looked all that impressive in the tournament so far. Despite entering as the No. 12 ranked team in the world — second only to the Greeks in the tournament —they have had two underwhelming performances in Victoria, beginning with with a 87-70 loss to Turkey and following it up with a 80-79 win Uruguay in a due-or-die game, blowing a big lead late in the game and leaving their fate up to a wide-open missed three at the buzzer. That leaves them at a point-differential of -16 through two games, the worst of any team in Group B.
Still, the Czechs are an experienced team. They have never qualified for the Olympic Games but placed 6th in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, finishing with a 4-4 record.
Czech captain and Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky has been the Czech’s best player in the tournament, with a breakthrough performance against Uruguay, notching 19 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds in a must-win game. Satoransky has always been an good FIBA player, one who feels more comfortable shooting the three with the shorter line — though he hasn’t been very accurate from there so far in this tournament — and who controls the game for the Czech Republic, averaging more than double the assists than anyone else on the roster.
Big men Ondrej Balvin and Jan Vesely combine to create the 14-foot frontcourt for the Czechs. Balvin notched a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double in their win over Uruguay, and he is not only big and long, listed at 7-foot-1 and averaging 1.0 blocks per game, but also a really strong post-presence that the Czechs like to throw the ball to when things get tight. Vesely brings a ton of experience to the table and can put the ball on the floor, averaging 9.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game in this tournament.
“This is a very experienced European team. Most of them have great size like this, experience, and shooting. And this team has all those three things,” Nick Nurse said about the Czechs. “Again, they’ve played with each other for a long time. They’ve played in a lot of competitions together. Their big guys are tough, physical, they’re all unique, drive the ball a little bit, post the ball a little bit, all rebound the ball a lot a bit. So, there’s always a concern against a really strong European team, and this is one of them.”
In other words, Team Canada centers Dwight Powell and Andrew Nicholson will have their work cut out for them, defending up a few inches as they aim to control the post and on the boards. Powell is arguably Canada’s most important player this tournament for what he does on the defensive end, and Nicholson is a strong post presence who presents a nice wrinkle to Team Canada’s offense with his ability to pop out to the three-point line and force opposing cenerst to defend on the perimeter.
The Czechs are team that likes to attack the paint and kick out to shooters, attack closeouts, and repeat, keeping the defense in rotation that way. But the Canadians switched everything in the second-half against Greece, keeping ball-handlers in front of them and living with mismatchs in the post. It’s a fail-safe for Canada if the defense is getting bent too much, but it might not be so simple against the Czechs who, in Balvin and Vesely, have two seven-footers who they can throw the ball to in the post or attack mismatches on the boards.
Offensively, the Canadians should try to target Balvin in the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop as much as possible, because as much as he will try to stay in the paint and protect the rim, he is relatively slow when forced onto the perimeter. Canada’s guards should be able to breeze past him if they get a favourable switch, but even just putting him in the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop will open things up for the Canadians.
Canada has averaged 103 points per game in this tournament after averaging only 72 points per game in the entire 2016 Olympic qualifying tournament. And, another fun fact: Andrew Wiggins has scored 20+ points in each of his two games in the Olympic qualifying tournament, becoming one of only three players to do so in multiple games in the preliminary round.
In conclusion, Canada is the better team in almost every regard. They have gotten better each game this tournament and they are more skilled in virtually every position. But the Czechs have FIBA experience and institutional knowledge over the Canadians, as well as a big, physical frontcourt. The two days off in between their win over China and the semi-final against the Czechs could lead to a slow start, but Canada has every the advantage and should win this game.
With roughly 800 fans expected to be in the stands cheering on the Canadians at the Save On Foods arena in Victoria on Saturday afternoon, Team Canada is excited for what will feel like a new experience after so much time without them. In fact, this is one of the first live sporting events with fans in Canada since the start of the pandemic.
“I’m super excited,” Powell said. “Obviously, an honour to wear this jersey regardless of where it is and to compete for our country, but to be able to have support like that in our home country is something very special. I’ve had the opportunity to do it once before and I can say it’s a very unique feeling. So if it’s 10 fans, if it’s 1,000 fans, or if it’s 20,000, regardless, it’s a unique motivating factor that I think will take well.”
Nurse said: “Getting fans back in the building is certainly a big step forward. I say this all the time, the Canadian fans, the Raptors’ fans are unbelievable, amazing, so I’m happy that they’re gonna be back in the building.”
Canada vs. Czech Republic kicks off at 4:05pm EST on CBC Sports and CBCSports.ca