There are very few positives, if any, to be taken away from Canada’s 84-68 loss to USA in their final tune-up game ahead of the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
In short, the Canadians looked overwhelmed by an American side coming off their first loss in over a decade. Canada surrendered three offensive rebounds on the very first possession of the game, and managed just two points on 1-of-10 shooting in the opening five minutes. At the final buzzer, Canada had made 32 per cent of its shots overall, including a ghastly 26 per cent from deep.
As centre Khem Birch described in a halftime interview, there is an “intimidation factor” when playing against Team USA, and Canada certainly didn’t play up to the level it showed in previous wins over New Zealand, Nigeria and Australia. There is an obvious talent gap between Canada and the United States — especially with so much established NBA-level talent bailing on the program — but there was a lack of poise and confidence that put Canada behind from the jump.
“We’re just going to flush this one away and get back to what we’re doing,” coach Nick Nurse told Michael Grange of Sportsnet. “We’ve got a heck of a lot more in our portfolio from what we’ve done here in three weeks to let this game do anything to us.”
Here are five takeaways from Monday’s loss.
Who can create offence?
Nurse’s system empowers players to play with creativity so long as they move the ball, and the results were solid. Canada generated close to half its offence from the three-point line, and the likes of Kevin Pangos, Andrew Nembhard, and Phil Scrubb all looked lively attacking out of the pick-and-roll in previous showings.
But the physicality and athleticism of the Americans presented serious problems, as the Canadians struggled throughout to run even the most basic of actions. The ball stagnated, as passing became risky with so much length on the other side, and the Americans were able to shut down most pick-and-roll action simply by switching interchangeably. That forced the Canadians into chucking prayers from the perimeter, and nobody aside from Kyle Wiltjer (21 points) had the touch.
This is where the absences really hurt, as Canada lacks one-on-one shot creation against defences of the highest calibre. Any one of Andrew Wiggins, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or Jamal Murray would have been a tentpole for the offence, but that responsibility now falls to lesser talents, and it showed on Monday.
Myles. Elite shot blocker. Best in the world. pic.twitter.com/VL92i8oqsw— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) August 26, 2019
Pangos, Nembhard, and Scrubb combined to shoot 7-of-27, which won’t cut it against any team in the tournament, let alone against the United States.
Lack of size
Another area of concern is the lack of size across the board for Team Canada. Between Kelly Olynyk’s injury, and withdrawals from Tristan Thompson, Dwight Powell, and Chris Boucher, the Canadians are left with just Birch and a last-second replacement in Owen Klassen manning the middle.
Birch did his best with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but he’s not a scorer by nature. He struggles to create his own offence off the dribble or in the post, and he’s not a reliable shooter. That being said, he was still miles better than Klassen, who fouled out in six minutes while shooting 1-of-4 on largely layup attempts.
Canada has the same problem on the wing, as Melvin Ejim is the only guy with above-average size. Youngster Oshae Brisett sat out with an ankle injury (there’s some concern that he might miss the World Cup altogether), which forced point guards like Nembhard and Aaron Best to slide up two positions. Predictably, the likes of Donovan Mitchell (12 points) and Jaylen Brown (19 points) capitalized.
The lack of size bled into every aspect of the game. Canada lost the rebounding battle 55-37, conceded more foul shots and two-point attempts because it couldn’t protect the paint, and it was even an issue in terms of being able to make passes or score on the inside. At one point, Klassen had a clear chance to finish a dunk with two hands, only to be blocked by a 6-foot-1 guard in Kemba Walker.
Canada will be at a disadvantage in the frontcourt against both Australia and Lithuania in the group stage, and it needs to pull off at least one upset to advance. The only counter is to take and make enough threes to force opponents to downsize.
Defence remains solid
If there was any positive from today’s loss, it was the defensive effort from Nurse’s squad. Save for a few flashes of malaise, the Canadians played with a high level of intensity that forced the USA into 19 turnovers, while allowing just two made threes.
Canada’s shot blocking is non-existent outside of Birch, but it can be suffocating on the perimeter. Nurse has drilled his guards to communicate, battle, and switch along the three-point arc, which saw all-star level talents in Khris Middleton (0-of-8 shooting) and Jayson Tatum (2-of-11) firing blanks.
Ordinarily, the Canadians would see a huge boost in their offence in a game in which they forced 19 turnovers, but this is again where Team USA’s superior athleticism came into play as they were able to recover effectively. But against most other teams, Canada should be able to rely on transition scoring to account for a significant share of its offence given its aggressiveness on the perimeter.
On the mend
The other bit of good news is that Canada will have some of its best remaining players available for the tournament.
Nembhard suffered a knee injury against New Zealand, and had to be helped off the floor last week. It was uncertain if the sophomore from the University of Florida would carry on, but he did return to action in Monday’s game. Granted, he was far from his best, but Nembhard has been one of Canada’s best players thus far despite being the youngest player on the team.
Similarly, Kaza Keane was also a question mark after he suffered an ankle injury, but he too made his return on Monday. However, with Cory Joseph slated to meet the team in China as early as tomorrow, there may not be many minutes available for Keane. Nevertheless, having more healthy bodies is always a positive.
Brady Heslip was also back in the rotation after missing most of the warm-up games to date. Heslip torched Nigeria in the first exhibition game, but had been absent thereafter. The sharpshooter was scoreless in 17 minutes against the Americans, but Heslip’s jumper will be crucial for the offence moving forward.
USA looks shaky
Despite leading wire-to-wire, it was hardly an impressive showing by Team USA.
Their defensive intensity was noticeably improved following their loss to Australia, but this result against Canada was more of a reflection of their overwhelming advantage in talent rather than their ability to execute. The United States was victorious because individual players won their matchups, not because their team functioned more cohesively as a whole.
The main concern is the halfcourt offence. The United States has plenty of scorers, but nobody seems to want to facilitate. There’s just no flow to what they run, as most sets are variations of the same repetitive one-on-one play off a high pick-and-roll. That can be pinned on the starting backcourt of Walker and Mitchell, who look for their own offence first and foremost.
Marcus Smart and Mason Plumlee are the only two defined role players who are looking to distribute over shooting the rock, but they’re hardly elite playmakers. Team USA recorded just 10 assists in their loss to Australia, and they were hardly much better Monday as they had 15 assists to 19 turnovers.
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