Categories crunchfx

What did we learn from the Canadian Men’s Olympic Basketball Team’s first game?

LAS VEGAS — A staff member wearing a red Canada Basketball jersey chased down a rebound as several players were taking their pregame shots. He ran to the sideline and saw a familiar face.

The moment between the official and Nick Nurse shook hands, which later turned into a hug.

The nurse said, “We thought this could have happened five years ago, right?”

Yes, it was five years ago, plus a few weeks, when Basketball Canada named Nurse the head coach of the men’s A team ahead of the 2019 World Cup. And it was nearly a year after Nurse resigned from his post following his exile from the Toronto Raptors and joined the Philadelphia 76ers. An hour before Canada’s men’s team played the United States’ latest (Rhyme to Be Named), Nurse was chatting with former Raptors assistant and Team Canada assistant Nate Bjorkgren and then-replacement Jordi Fernández.

Now, the 2019 team was short on talent. They barely made it out of their group, let alone medaled. But the point is this: For longer than Nurse’s time with the program, Canada has been dreaming of a matchup of the best against the best against the United States. Wednesday was the first pre-Olympic warm-up for both teams, but it was also a moment Canadian basketball fans have been thinking about since Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph joined the National Basketball Association as first-round draft picks in 2011. The Canadians have since flocked to the NBA, but after failing to qualify for the Olympics in 2012, 2016 and 2020, they are finally making it to the tournament.

“When the first count came, I was like, ‘Damn, it’s been a minute since I put this jersey on,'” said Jamal Murray, who hasn’t played for Canada since the 2015 Pan-Am Games. “So, there was definitely tension. … We’re all getting used to building that kind of chemistry. It’s definitely a special moment. I’ll shoot it better next time.”

Indeed, the 86-72 defeat wasn’t what fans had dreamed of, but it was a useful starting point on the road to France. Here’s what we learned from the team’s first 40 minutes.

Shai playmaker

It was no surprise that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray would start together. The star guards, along with Dillon Brooks, are the three definitive starters on this team.

Earlier in training camp in Toronto, Gilgeous-Alexander described the relationship between the two stars simply: He would drive and Murray would shoot. That meant Gilgeous-Alexander would dominate the ball, while Murray would move more off the ball. Gilgeous-Alexander said he was trying to be more of a threat off the ball, but that wasn’t the case Wednesday.

Life wasn’t easy in the paint for Gilgeous-Alexander, as the US started Joel Embiid and then brought in Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo from the bench. Ridiculous stuff in terms of rim protection.

“We play against these guys every day in the league,” Murray said. “It didn’t matter who they played. Obviously, Joel’s a big guy. AD’s a big guy. Bam’s a big guy and he can move. Other than that, nothing we haven’t seen before.”

“Other than that” he does a lot of work there.

Murray had a tough night as well. The guards shot 5-of-18 combined. Both guards had their moments where they pushed the envelope, and you can’t let the Americans get away.

“They changed it a lot,” Fernández said, “and we kept looking at the key.”

It’s definitely a point of emphasis when the team goes to France. Gilgeous-Alexander, Murray and everyone else need to adapt.

Bad Guy Dillon

Sure, Dillon Brooks started LeBron James. It had to be done. One of the league’s best instigators, a guy who has no qualms about trash-talking James and Steph Curry in the NBA, would show Americans that Canada has no fear. A useful note to keep in mind if the two teams meet in a playoff game in France.

After an early American turnover, Brooks stayed close to James and James gave him two light shoves. James then caught him and passed him behind Brooks for a dunk. Brooks was on the list of the evening’s best Canadians.

The Las Vegas crowd booed Brooks when the starting lineups were introduced and throughout the evening. Let’s hope Brooks is still around in Los Angeles in 2028, assuming Canada makes the playoffs again. If so, Brooks should carry the flag in the opening ceremony.

“Yeah, that’s fine. They know who I am,” Brooks said. “They want to boo me.”

Dwight Powell started up front for Canada, a small surprise. But when you watch him compete against Embiid, the reason becomes clear.

Powell is just a tough guy. Embiid was called for an offensive foul while trying to get a position in the second quarter. Embiid then hit Powell with a forearm that was reviewed. “He’s going down,” an angry Embiid told the referee. It was called an unsportsmanlike foul after the review. Embiid was ejected a few minutes later.

“He didn’t think (he hit me in the face),” Powell said. “But everything is fine in competition. We talked after the game. Everything is fine. Especially at the international level, there can be moments like that. But you’re competing for your country, so you understand there are high emotions.”

Powell gives nothing away on defense and moves immediately to the next action on offense. The downside is that teams will leave Powell open on the perimeter, but the starters should have the space to absorb that.

Fernández also likely hopes that Kelly Olynyk can help the second unit get easier looks. Regarding that…

Second unit struggles

Fernández was never going to push his best players too hard in this game. He’s already talked about keeping their minutes lighter to keep them fresh for the Olympics, so the exhibition games won’t be a heavy workload. No Canadian played more than Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 19 points.

With that in mind, Canada didn’t score until almost three minutes into the second quarter, on a high-low pass from Olynyk to Trey Lyles. Guards Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Andrew Nembhard had trouble creating enough separation against the athletic Americans.

“Regardless of the score, I didn’t like the game we played,” Fernández said. “This is not who we are, this is not the game we want to play, this is not the game we want to be. … It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the game we played.”

In important games, I’d be surprised if Fernández went to lineups without at least one of his star guards. Nembhard and Alexander-Walker are good players, but they can’t reliably create against the world’s best perimeter defenders (Jrue Holiday also beat Murray a few times).

The last points were about two things

So, the final spots on this roster were all about general manager Rowan Barrett and Fernández injecting as much versatility and experience into the roster as possible, and that was finalized Wednesday morning. The two non-NBA players on the team, Melvin Ejim and Khem Birch, will likely not be in the rotation on a regular basis. Birch is the fourth wide receiver, while Ejim is an extra wing.

The final three cuts, Phil Scrubb, Thomas Scrubb and Mifondu Kabengale, will travel to Canada for pre-tournament games and will be available to fill in if another player gets injured. (Thomas Scrubb scored on a hook shot over LeBron James late in the game, which should be a great career moment on a disappointing day.) Barrett made it clear that Ejim, who has played for the senior national team more than any other player on the roster, is an essential piece to the team, with Olynyk perhaps not included.

“A lot of our players really look up to him as a big brother,” Barrett said Wednesday morning. “He provides calmness. … Sometimes you just need a teammate to grab you by the jersey and say, ‘Hey, we’re good, we’re good. Get your head together. You’re coming back.'”

Meanwhile, Zach Edey’s withdrawal from training camp meant Canada needed another big player. Kabengale is huge and intriguing on that front alone. Canada will be smaller than most of its opponents, with Olynyk, Powell and Lyles up front. Birch, however, is a bit more agile if healthy and is quite strong, despite giving up a few inches to Kabengele.

(Photo of Dillon Brooks and LeBron James: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)