USA vs Canada, it doesn’t get much bigger than this (in North America at least).
For much of the 2023 World Cup campaign in Jakarta and Manila, Canada has been climbing an uphill battle from a continuity perspective. Going up against the well-established European powerhouses in France, Spain and Serbia, Canada’s NBA talent nearly propelled them into the finals.
In the Americans, Canada was facing an opponent that, for the first time at this World Cup, was assembled in a similar fashion and didn’t hold a clear continuity advantage (Canada probably had the continuity advantage, which is a hilarious sentence to write). Thrown together a month before the World Cup began in training camp, both countries opted for NBA-centric roster construction, loading up on guards, wings and mobile bigs while neglecting the bruising bigs. This flaw was exposed as both teams ended up getting pummeled inside by European nations with bigger, stronger frontcourts later in the tournament.
From the first second of the game, you could tell something was different stylistically for Canada. Jordi Fernandez’s first adjustment came before the opening tip, tweaking the starting lineup and going small with SGA/Dort/Brooks/Barrett/Powell. Aided by outside shooting from Dort and Brooks (both made a pair of 3’s), Canada got off to to their best start at the 2023 WC, starting the first 6:05 outscoring the USA 23-13. We even got a post up possession for Olynyk against the smaller Austin Reaves and Josh hart, punishing USA’s switch everything scheme. It was definitely cathartic to finally watch Canada bully another team down low.
In the 2nd quarter, Canada continued to exploit their size advantage, starting the 7-footer duo of Olynyk and Edey. That proved to be ineffective as Olynyk picked up his 2nd foul early on and Edey was a -11 in that stretch. USA closed the gap with a lot of transition and semi-transition buckets before the starting lineup came back in and stabilized things for Canada. The 58 points in the 1st half was Canada’s 2nd highest all tournament, behind only the 66 they scored against Lebanon.
Canada opened up the 3rd with their patented Point Series set, adding a wrinkle for Dillon Brooks, who hopped his way to the rim for his 23rd point of the game. His driving has been incredibly impressive all tournament long, and Brooks had a nice dump off pass to Powell for a dunk after drawing 2 defenders later in the quarter.
In the final frame, Jordi went the complete opposite direction from the 2nd quarter, going ultra small with Ejim at the 5. Rather than try to beat the USA with more size, Canada leaned into it’s own perimeter-oriented roster construction. But, the USA began to play the “shift” and double aggressively vs Shai and Canada’s offense slowed to a halt. After trading buckets the USA called a timeout with Canada leading 100-98 with 4:12 to go.
Shai went to work as he has all World Cup long, nailing a stepback midrange jumper to put Canada up 2 with 30 seconds to go. But in another gut-wrenching Canada Basketball moment, Mikal Bridges hit a corner 3 after intentionally missing a free throw. Overtime it was!
In the overtime period, it was the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander show, who scored Canada’s first 7 points, including a highlight reel ankle breaker. Brooks provided the secondary creation, hitting a midrange jumper, 2 of his historic 39 points! Barrett put the nail in the coffin with a straightaway 3, his 4th of the game.
This core of players is going home with the Bronze as well as invaluable experience playing meaningful high-leverage games together. If anything carries over to the the 2024 Olympics in Paris, it will be that.
As with any team, there were clear strengths and noticeable flaws that developed on this Canadian team as the tournament progressed. Over the next few months, there will be substantial discussion and obsessive hand-wringing over the 12 Canadians flying to Paris next summer. Who will be added and who will be replaced and for what reasons? At least for today, I won’t participate in these conversations. Instead, I want to highlight this team, from the players to the coaching staff to Canada Basketball management for the run they put together. Direct qualification for the Olympics and a Bronze medal at the FIBA World Cup! An unheard of result for Canada Basketball on the international stage, and they deserve to be celebrated.
Canada Basketball has arrived and is just getting started.