Canadian men’s basketball team ready for test against the best

Canadian men’s basketball team ready for test against the best

LAS VEGAS — The Canadian men’s basketball team is loaded.

Canada is ranked seventh in the world and finished third last year at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, where they recorded wins over teams ranked first (Spain), second (USA) and the defending Olympics silver medalists (France).

The only team with more NBA players on its final roster at the Olympic tournament in France later this month will be Team USA.

On Wednesday night in Las Vegas, the scale of the mountain they are trying to climb in their quest for a gold medal will become fully apparent as Canada plays its first exhibition game against the U.S. at T-Mobile Arena.

It’s not the same group that Canada defeated in overtime to win the bronze medal last summer. The only returning players from that team are Tyrese Haliburton and Anthony Edwards. Added for the Olympic tournament are some guys you might have heard of — LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant (though he’ll miss the game Wednesday night with a calf strain), Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum, and Jrue Holiday, just to name a few.

Also, Joel Embiid will be making his Team USA debut. The 2022-23 NBA MVP was raised in Cameroon, but was made eligible to play for the Americans in time for the Olympics.

So, yeah. While Canada has added some key reinforcements as well — Jamal Murray, Andrew Nembhard and likely Trey Lyles — it’s not quite the same, though Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nembhard are as a good a guard rotation as any team in the tournament, Team USA included.

But for all the feel-good moments the Canadians generated with their run at the World Cup last summer, opening their exhibition schedule against the defending Olympic gold medallist brings home the challenge ahead of them.

It’s not the be-all and end-all, given it’s just the first exhibition game for each team. Sure it’s being shown live in both countries and the arena will be filled, but it doesn’t really count.

“I mean it’s a cool experience because of the stage, right?” said Canadian head coach Jordi Fernandez after his team’s practice Tuesday evening. “And a lot of people are excited to watch the game. But we have a plan to be the team that is pretty physical and runs a lot, and our conditioning is important. As you guys can tell, our guys work really hard. And (Wednesday’s) game is just a part of our plan — I think we have 17 days to get to that day in the best shape (with) our lives connected and ready to fight. 

“… We’re gonna try to win every single game, but I’m telling you, I’m not gonna run any of my players to the ground because … we have a plan and we have to follow it and you know, the emotions … it would not make sense to play somebody 30 minutes.”

But it’s still a special moment. In some ways Canada’s journey to being a medal favourite in France began this time of year in Las Vegas two summers ago when men’s team general manager Rowan Barrett and then-head coach Nick Nurse asked for a core of players to commit to preparing each summer for World Cup qualifying, the World Cup and, eventually, the Olympics.

When Gilgeous-Alexander was the first to step up and declare he wanted to be part of it, a new chapter in Canadian basketball began to be written.

A preview of what could easily be a gold-medal final is a great way to start the slow build to what could be a spectacular payoff.

But then again, it’s just an exhibition game.

“I think no matter who we play, it’s gonna be very exciting just because we know the opportunity that’s coming up,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who had a World Cup All-Star nod sandwiched between consecutive first-team all-NBA honours. “We all love basketball, and we all love the bright lights, the stage, so I think regardless of who it is, we’re going to be very excited, we’re going to be jittery. I might dribble it off my foot the first play, but once the ball goes up and down once or twice, it’s basketball and we’re doing what we love.”

How they do it will be crucial. If Canada has a weakness, it’s their relative lack of size across their front line. Among Team USA’s many strengths is that they have three world-class centres in Embiid, Davis and Bam Adebayo. Any of them pose a problem for Canada, collectively they represent a nightmare.

We should get a feel for how Canada plans to manage teams that can play with multiple bigs — France poses a similar challenge with Victor Wembanyama and Rudy Gobert, who are seven-foot-four and seven-foot-two, respectively.

“It’s a good challenge for us,” said Fernandez. “We’re gonna run a lot. That’s how we’re gonna handle it. And, you know, we’re young, we’ve trained very well, and we’re ready to play. They have one of the best centers in the world (Embiid), well, two of them (Embiid and Anthony Davis) … they are very, very good players. (We have) a lot of respect for the team and the program. They’re No. 1 in the world, and we got to do this work. So one day in the future, we’re in that No. 1 spot, so we’re excited to play them and face all that adversity with the size.”

While Canada’s bigs — Kelly Olynyk, Dwight Powell and potentially two of Lyles and Khem Birch — don’t necessarily match up with a front line like Team USA can put on the floor, guarding them won’t be a one-on-one effort.

Canada’s got some excellent defenders among their wing contingent — Gilgeous-Alexander led the NBA is steals, while Lu Dort, Dillon Brooks, Nembhard and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are all considered strong to elite NBA defenders. They can cause problems with their help, can make it difficult for teams to properly get the ball to their bigs and can speed the game up to take them out of their comfort zone.

“Be disruptive, (be in) passing lanes, ball pressure, make it tough to enter the ball,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “And then we do have really physical bigs despite them not being seven feet. They’re physical, they’ve played a lot of basketball, they’ve matched up against all kinds of players. We’ve also confident in their ability to man-up and guard the basketball down low, too.”

It’s a tall order against one of the biggest and best teams in international basketball, but that’s exactly what this edition of the Canadian men’s team signed up for when they committed to their Olympic journey.

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