Serbia & Canada continued their respective battles towards best country in the world (at basketball). Serbia without the best player in the world (Nikola Jokic), and Canada with the best player remaining in the tournament (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). Two teams flexing completely different strengths, and tying to mask separate weaknesses. At the end, Serbia was on top.
Early on it was a test of applying physicality without crossing the ever-changing line of too little or too much. Canada struggled to toe that line, as Gilgeous-Alexander, Dillon Brooks, and Dwight Powell all exited the first quarter early with foul trouble – all 3 of whom are absolutely essential to Canada’s success. Defensively, Canada made a few lapses – the most painful of them coming on the defensive glass. Offensively, things sputtered to a halt with Gilgeous-Alexander off the floor – their only respite coming in the form of some Kelly Olynyk foul baiting. The pace benefited Serbia early on as they worked through post and high ball screens to lean on their size. At the end of the first frame Canada trailed 23-15.
The second quarter started at a rapid pace with threes being made on both sides. Canada’s being the result of exaggerated swings or skip passes, Serbia often finding their success, still, through the post. Early, deep seals were coming from their frontcourt and their wing players. With Canada top-locking some of these post-ups, their help-side defense was less engaged and led to some straight line drives for the Serbia guards with little resistance at the rim. Gilgeous-Alexander continued to work out of a broom closet. You’ve been watching the tournament so far, you know what it looks like. Trying to navigate gapping defenders, using bully drives instead of straight line drives to manage the help and the pacing, still finding an inch of space to wriggle through on occasion or a hand crow-barred into his mid-section to draw a foul. If he collapses the whole side, find the corner shooter. It’s hard work, but it’s what Canada’s offense requires from him often times.
Throughout the tournament, the hurdle Canada had to keep jumping was the deficit in the frontcourt. Olynyk & Powell are wonderful big men and have long NBA & International careers still to go, but they both qualify as finesse bigs. In FIBA, with the smaller court and lack of 3-seconds-in-the-key, it elevates the importance of bigs who dominate in close spaces with strength on offense, and protects their lack of speed and mobility on defense with less ground to cover and no impetus to leave the rim. Serbia continued to buckle Canada’s defense through sideline post entries. As mentioned before, Canada’s efforts to load up on them led to breakdowns elsewhere.
In the first half, Serbia outscored Canada by 14 points inside the arc, and shot significantly better from there (68% to 43%). They pressed that advantage to a 13-point lead at halftime. As has been the case in the last few Canada games, the reffing was a bit controversial. Canada’s stars were in foul trouble, coming on some ticky-tack fouls, but the whistle usually benefits the team who can impose their physicality with less motion and that was Serbia. Make of it what you will.
In this tournament, Canada has been really good in third quarters, and they started out really strong here. Brooks, ever the man on the spot for Canada, banged two triples within the first 2 minutes to give Canada a bit of a charge. Defensively, they forced a couple more turnovers too. The pace didn’t last forever though, and Canada still tried to keep pace with long, heavy-dribbling possessions.
The disparity in offensive effort was massive. Serbia could work in easy space with a simple flare to the weak-side and a 2-man game. Or, a pin-down for a guard to dart around and reverse course underneath. Easy avenues to advantages, and quick actions to follow if no advantages were gained. Canada defended like hell, they really did, but they continued to lose the strength battle and by proxy of that, the battle for space on the court. Despite some great drives to the bucket from Gilgeous-Alexander and Alexander-Walker, Canada’s offense couldn’t keep up the pressure. A few times they narrowed it down to a 7-point deficit, but by the end of the 3rd quarter it climbed back up to 12.
The fourth quarter was the death knell. I suppose it usually is, being the end of the game. Serbia snapped off an 8-0 run off the strength of two threes and a breakaway bucket to start things off. Canada’s offense lived and died by quick trigger 3-point attempts as they tried to keep pace. Serbia’s offense kept whirring, though. All the while, Canada found itself at 23 fouls for the game before the first half of the fourth quarter had gone – a tournament high. The whistle was coming often for both teams, with Serbia also clearing 20.
At the 5 minute mark, Barrett got to the rim for the second time (the first resulting in a layup) in a few plays and hit two free throws as a result. Canada was within 10. Bogdanovic responded with a 5-0 run of his own, including a step-back three from the corner after lulling the defense to sleep. Serious firepower, as that brought him to 21 points on just 10 shots (70% from the field). More layups followed for Serbia – one after bruising on the glass, another from Bogdanovic in transition. With 2 minutes left in the game, Canada trailed by 16.
In the last 2 minutes, the game played fast and loose. One team is forced to break presses, the other tries to wriggle into points against a prevent defense. Both styles kind of guide the game towards straight line drives and long passes.
Canada cleared the bench, putting in Trae Bell-Haynes, Phil Scrubb, Kyle Alexander, Zach Edey, and Melvin Ejim. Serbia closed things up.
Time to move on to the Bronze medal game. It’ll probably be against Germany, but a USA vs. Canada game would be cool.
Have a blessed day.