Canada's growth on full display as team reaches new heights at FIBA World Cup

Canada has reached the medal round at the FIBA World Cup for the first time ever.

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Aside from the United States, Canada was the least experienced of the eight teams remaining in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup. With a young roster composed of seven NBA players who, with the exception of Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell, have only played in a maximum of one tournament with the senior team, Canada entered Wednesday's matchup against Slovenia as an international underdog.

After all, Slovenia is the No. 7 ranked team in the world and returned nine of 12 players from the 2021 Olympics, where it placed fourth. Its lone NBA player, Luka Doncic, has played more international games than the majority of Canada’s NBA players combined, joining the senior team in 2016 when he was just 17 years old — not to mention playing FIBA rules in the Liga ACB with Real Madrid between 2015-18.

The fear was Slovenia was going to use its experience and continuity to its advantage, dictating the style of play to make its opponents uncomfortable.

If Canada was going to beat Doncic and Slovenia, it was going to have to play better than it did against Brazil and Spain, taking advantage of the valuable experience the players gained through their first five games of the tournament. And they did, thoroughly outplaying Slovenia in a thrilling 100-89 win, moving on to a semifinal matchup against Serbia and the medal round of the World Cup for the first time in program history.

“Congratulations to these guys,” head coach Jordi Fernandez said after the game. “They just made history: This is the best position so far that Canada has qualified — [their previous highest finish being sixth in 1982] — so, congrats to our guys. Congrats to the country and congrats to Canada Basketball.

“We're getting this experience, day by day. So, like I said on Day 1: we're gonna get better every single day, every single game. And today we were better than what we were versus Spain. And when we play Serbia, we will be better than today.”

Canada will play for a medal at the FIBA World Cup for the first time. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Canada will play for a medal at the FIBA World Cup for the first time. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila) (AP)

Part of that improvement has to do with getting off to better starts. After coming out slow and finding themselves in early holes throughout the group stage, Canada led 26-24 after the first quarter on Wednesday and was tied 50-50 after a back-and-forth first half that saw 18 lead changes and six ties, with Canada answering every run Slovenia had.

The Canadians had a clear game plan and executed it by switching every ball screen and helping on Doncic when he drove into the paint, sacrificing semi-contested 3s from other Slovenian players. It didn’t always work, as Slovenia made 10-of-17 3s in the first half. But Canada crucially avoided early foul trouble and slowly frustrated and wore down Doncic, who finished the half with 17 points on 5-of-12 shooting, double the amount of shots any other Slovenian took as he went at Canada’s bigs on switches.

As an adjustment, Canada closed the half with a super-small lineup, with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Lu Dort replacing Olynyk and Powell, allowing them to switch every screen, gang rebound, and run the fast break — a crucial part of their identity. Alexander-Walker had his best half of the entire tournament, with 10 points, two 3s, and three rebounds.

“It was extremely important to finish possessions because that's when our fast break starts, and I think we pushed the pace for 40 minutes and it went our way,” Fernandez said about his team, who finished the game winning the rebounding battle 38-30 and the fast-break battle 23-7.

“We gave them too many opportunities to score from the fast break and this is where they made this advantage,” Slovenian head coach Aleksander Sekulić said. “We knew that they're a very dangerous team in this — they have the ability, they have the athleticism, and this is where they made this advantage, which it looks like was crucial in the end.”

To start the third quarter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dillon Brooks, and RJ Barrett all made huge plays to propel Canada to a 9-2 run, holding Slovenia to just two points in the first four minutes of the quarter. Barrett had 13 points in the third frame alone, providing some much-needed secondary scoring as he finished the game with 24 points and nine rebounds on 9-of-22 shooting.

Brooks, meanwhile, had 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in addition to getting the primary assignment on Doncic, making things very tough on him as he wore him down both physically and mentally as the game went on. Brooks toed the correct line of staying out of foul trouble while being physical on the ball. In fact, Doncic shot just 3-of-8 from the field for nine points in the second half before both he and Brooks were ejected from the game, picking up their second unsportsmanlike fouls on two unrelated plays in the fourth quarter.

“I think everybody knows what my frustration was: playing for the national team, it's a lot of emotions. A lot of times I don't control myself, which I've been having problems with,” Doncic said after the game, adding that he thought the referees allowed Canada to get away with too much physicality.

“I think Dillon played great,” Doncic added. “He was very physical, like he always does. A lot of people don’t like him, but I respect him for what he does. And he does that stuff really good.”

By that point, however, Canada was already in control of the game, leading 93-77 midway through the fourth quarter. Slovenia went on a quick 6-1 run after their superstar was ejected, but Canada answered once again with a sequence of hustle plays led by Powell and Gilgeous-Alexander, who was willing to do the dirty work down to the final buzzer despite Canada leading comfortably.

The superstar made extra defensive rotations to break up plays, pushed the ball up the court in transition before finding his teammates, and fought bigs for offensive rebounds and loose balls that led to second-chance opportunities that allowed Canada to close out the game.

Gilgeous-Alexander was once again Canada’s best player, finishing with 31 points on an extremely efficient 8-of-12 shooting, 14-of-16 from the free-throw line, in addition to pulling down 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals. He became the first player with 30+ points and 10+ rebounds in a knockout game of the World Cup since 1994, and the first Canadian with multiple 30-point games in a single World Cup since 1978.

The star point guard’s growth throughout the tournament is symbolic of how Canada as a whole has grown and learned from its experience. While Gilgeous-Alexander has better learned how to get to his spots on the floor with the correct spacing while balancing his own scoring with his playmaking, the team has learned how to each thrive in their own role. Barrett provides secondary scoring on the fast break, Brooks and Dort hit open 3s and play lockdown defence, Powell does the dirty work and is always in the right place on defence, Alexander-Walker provides a burst of speed in the second unit, and down the line it goes.

With the exception of a two-minute stretch in the fourth quarter after Brooks and Doncic were ejected, Canada stayed composed throughout the entire game and played to its quick, athletic identity. In fact, the Canadians were more composed than the experienced Slovenians, and that was the biggest key to winning.

“We had some troubles in the third quarter — we lost concentration, gave up too many transition points. On the other side, we didn't score some open shots we could've, and their athleticism prevailed,” Sekulic said.

“Canada has a hell of a team. I mean, they can play different lineups with small ball, with the two bigs, they have big guards, strong guards, they have guys who can create. So, they have everything they need to go all the way,” Sekulic added.

“I think they can match up with the United States. But we'll see. I said this from before the start of the tournament, that Canada is one of the teams that is favoured to win the medal. And I still stand [by that].”

Canada is beginning to make Sekulic and others who predicted it would win a medal look very smart. And it starts with getting better every game by learning how to thrive in the international game, staying composed regardless of the officiating, outworking opponents for rebounds and loose balls, and each player thriving in their role.

Canada did that against Slovenia and will have to do it again against the experienced Serbians on Friday. If they do, the Canadians might get a chance to play the one team with less experience than them in the gold medal game.