Canada showed flashes, but Australia proved more consistent in their 108-92 win to open tournament play in the “Group of Death” at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
There was no lack of fight within the Canadians, who reversed a 17-point deficit in the matter of five minutes to briefly take the lead in the third, but their momentum couldn’t be maintained. Canada wore down after making the comeback, and Australia capitalized with a 32-15 finish in the fourth quarter to take the win.
Here’s five takeaways from Canada’s loss.
One — Canada’s top gear is impressive, but their depth is not
Despite the lopsided finish, the Canadians were neck-and-neck with one of the best teams in the tournament. Nick Nurse’s team absorbed body blows early on, made clever adjustments, and it was a one-point game heading into the fourth.
It’s clear that Canada excels in the backcourt. The three-guard rotation of Kevin Pangos, Cory Joseph, and Phil Scrubb combined for 39 points and 13 assists, and all three looked sharp. Australia is one of the best teams in the tournament, but they couldn’t stop Canada’s guards in the pick-and-roll. So long as those three play well, the Canadians should be able to put up enough points to win.
There’s also just enough from the frontcourt to squeeze by most teams. Khem Birch was impressive on both ends, Kyle Wiltjer provides instant offence, while Melvin Ejim is a solid all-around contributor. All three forwards made positive contributions, and Thomas Scrubb even hit two pivotal triples off the bench.
The trouble is that the rest of the roster just isn’t up to par. Andrew Nembhard wowed in tune-up games, but the 19-year-old wilted under the bright lights as he collected zero points and two fouls in nine uninspiring minutes off the bench. Brady Heslip made three jumpers, but Nurse doesn’t trust him enough on defence and there are better options ahead of him in the rotation. And finally, Owen Klassen is just painfully limited, as he’s a minus on both ends of the floor in addition to being undersized and unathletic.
When Nurse goes to his best five — that being the three guard lineup of Joseph, Pangos, Scrubb along with Birch in the middle and either Ejim for defence or Wiltjer for offence — they can rattle off impressive runs. But as soon as the depth pieces come into play, Canada’s flaws begin to show.
This is where the dropouts affect the team because they shouldn’t be in this position. Instead of Klassen hamming it up, it should be Tristan Thompson owning the paint or Kelly Olynyk creating on the perimeter. And instead of relying on a teenage guard or a one-dimensional shooter in the backcourt, it should be names like Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander spearheading the group.
Two — Cory Joseph shows up, but leaves you wanting more
Reports were that Joseph would also jump ship, but he since rejoined the national team and he was a positive contributor despite skipping the five tune-up games in Australia prior to joining the team in China.
Joseph supplied energy on both sides of the floor, as he got to the basket while being disruptive on defence and showed good leadership in how he ran the team. Joseph kept a tight lid on his former San Antonio Spurs teammate Patty Mills, who finished with just nine points after scoring 30 against Team USA last week, and Joseph was Canada’s best option to create and finish at the rim.
However, it still wasn’t Joseph at his very best. Conditioning was an issue, as Joseph ran out of steam towards the end which brought a drag on the team as a whole. Joseph also battled foul trouble that sent him to the bench early on and he was visibly frustrated at the officials for most of the game. Canada needed Joseph at his very best to upset Australia and Joseph couldn’t deliver.
Truthfully, it’s not fair to ask Joseph to carry such a heavy burden, as it’s simply not within his capabilities to carry the offence. He’s opportunistic and energetic, but he’s best cast as a supporting player. Again, this wouldn’t have been an issue had some of Canada’s best players showed up.
Three — Khem Birch sets the tone
Birch is Canada’s most important player, and he balled out against Australia. The Montreal native threw down numerous dunks as part of his team-high 18 points, and he chipped in with a steal and two blocks to boot.
When Birch is locked in, he’s capable of setting the tone on both ends. The threat of Birch’s cuts to the rim create space for Pangos, Joseph, and Scrubb to penetrate and create, while Birch’s shot-blocking is Canada’s only hope of protecting the basket outside of relying on a zone defence. The issue is that Birch isn’t always engaged, but a few lapses are understandable given his workload.
Despite Birch’s best efforts, he can’t make up for the drop-off to his substitute. Outside of screening and rebounding, Klassen can’t replicate any of Birch’s best traits. Klassen isn’t a threat to shoot and he can’t affect the basket on either end. He doesn’t finish inside, nor can he challenge shots above the rim.
Similar to Joseph, the Canadians are stuck needing Birch to play outside and above his level. Birch logged 26 minutes against Australia, but that number needs to be above 30 for Canada to stay competitive. It’s unclear if Birch — who serves as a backup for the Orlando Magic — can extend himself and remain productive over longer stretches, but the Canadians are screwed if he can’t.
Four — Nurse playing a high-risk strategy
It’s in Nurse’s nature to gamble and that was the right approach in this game as Canada was the underdog in this fight. But those high-risk strategies came back to burn him as Australia cooly made their adjustments down the stretch.
Early on, it was officiating that set the Canadians back. Nurse’s general defensive philosophy is to pressure the perimeter and to protect the paint, but officials wouldn’t allow it. Joseph, Wiltjer, and Birch all landed in early foul trouble — Nurse was so irate with ticky-tack calls that he picked up a technical for berating the official — which forced Nurse to scramble his rotation.
The one benefit to Canada’s aggressive defence was that it produced turnovers. Australia coughed it up 13 times, which directly led to 22 points for the Canadians. But on the flip side, Australia got to the line ten times in the first quarter alone and they played in the bonus for much of the first half which forced Canada to back off.
Nurse’s solution was to switch to zone defence for much of the second half. That strategy paid off in the third quarter as Australia got very little through the pick-and-roll. It also allowed Canada’s perimeter players to be less aggressive and avoid fouling, as there was a numerical advantage in the paint.
However, Australia eventually burned them from the perimeter with Matthew Dellavedova, who exploded for six threes as part of a game-high 24 points. The Aussies played through the middle against the zone and their bigs were able to spot Dellavedova slipping through the cracks for open looks.
Five — Difficult road ahead
With this loss to Australia, the Canadians will now have to beat both Senegal and Lithuania to advance into the next round. And while Senegal shouldn’t be much of a problem, Lithuania promises to be a difficult opponent.
The scouting report on Lithuania is that they’re built to exploit Canada’s weaknesses. Two intimidating 7-footers in Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis will test Canada’s depth in the frontcourt, as they’re both capable of scoring 20 or more. Birch must avoid foul trouble and remain in the game, but that’s easier said than done. Nurse will also likely have to bulk up in the frontcourt and start Thomas Scrubb at power forward over Wiltjer.
Canada’s best chance to hurt the Lithuanians is to bomb away from deep. Lithuania’s bigs — Valanciunas in particular — are much less comfortable guarding on the perimeter. Nurse will also have to rely yet again on zone defence to protect the paint and they’ll just have to pray that Lithuania’s guards misfire from deep.
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