VICTORIA – Towards the end of the first quarter, Canada’s National Men’s Team was working the clock in its last possession against Argentina.
As the crowd in the nearly full Save-On-Foods Memorial Center watched and the seconds ticked by, Kelly Olynyk waved at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, asking if he wanted him to come over and set up a screen at balls to release it.
The Oklahoma City Thunder guard shook his head: Not necessary. Instead, he smashed his defender and smashed his way into the paint, gathering Argentinian defenders as he went, and at the right time fired a ball at Kevin Pangos, who dribbled past before going cash in a three wide open.
Canada’s National Men’s Team’s journey to where it wants to go – battling for World Cup podiums and competing for Olympic medals – isn’t easy. So many things have to go well.
But when Gilgeous-Alexander has the ball in his hands, shifting gears like the first Pedro Martinez, it becomes much easier.
He did it time and time again against Argentina and that was perhaps the main reason why Canada managed to pull off an impressive 99-77 win against much-loved visitors.
“I think when you’re as good a scorer and as hard to keep up front as Shai is, he’s going to get into the paint,” said men’s national team head coach Nick Nurse.
“I like that he’s aggressive at the start and that forces them to crumble a bit. He’s done a lot of great sprays to guys who were so good at the start and I think that’s built a ton of confidence for everyone. It’s kind of a momentum and they were right on time, on target, on pace. Great, great, great reads and gave us a lot of confidence. I think that momentum continued to develop for all who came.
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The 24-year-old has made life even harder for defenders by showing his ability to get out and do a few threes too. All in all, it was another brilliant outing for Gilgeous-Alexander who topped all three starts this summer – his first three with the senior national team.
“He was awesome. He was awesome. He’s a great body, he controls the ball and time in the game against our smaller guards,” said Argentine veteran and former Toronto Raptor Carlos Delfino. “He showed all the talent he has and the player he is.”
It’s the kind of playmaker game Canada hasn’t seen since Victoria’s Steve Nash wore number 7 for the red and white, and is dreaming of what Canada will look like when Jamal Murray and RJ Barrett will be there. the fold too.
Until then, Gilgeous-Alexander looks capable of carrying a heavy load as he finished with 23 points and eight assists while going 3 of 6 from deep. He was helped by Olynyk, who added 21 points and eight rebounds, while Dwight Powell had 12 points and seven boards.
He’s too young to fully appreciate how important a win over one of basketball’s consistent world powers is to a program that hasn’t had too much to brag about in recent years. But while Gilgeous-Alexander respects everything, he fears none, it seems.
“We knew who we were playing. But I think for us, we are also aware of who we are. And we know they have to beat us just like we have to beat them. So it was no different for us to play Dominican and Virgin Islands. It’s a basketball team in front of us. They have strengths and weaknesses and we want to take away their strengths and play on their weaknesses. I think we’re doing enough tonight.
Canada shot 50% from the floor and was 12 of 29 from three with a 15-10 advantage in turnovers on the night.
There was no denying that the game was a test, however. Canada entered the game with a perfect 6-0 record in the first leg of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 qualifier and the best point differential among the 12 Americas teams that qualified for the second stage in pursuit of the seven places available. But Argentina were 5-1 and dripping with the kind of international pedigree that Canada can only aspire to at this point.
Argentina, ranked seventh in the world, brought nine of the 12 players from the squad that qualified for the quarter-finals of the Olympics last summer, and eight from the squad that won silver in the World Cup in 2019.
It wasn’t a do-or-die game, far from it. Unless something unimaginable, both teams will qualify for the World Cup next summer. But for Canada, it was a proof of concept. Despite all efforts to elevate the program where its collective talent suggests, wins against quality opponents matter.
“That’s probably our biggest challenge, playing against a team like this,” Nurse said.
“You have a whole list of guys who have played several years together. They have something that we try to build which is a certain longevity, experience, chemistry. And you know that goes a long way in this game. We’ve seen it, we’ve faced it, we’ve felt it.
“I think our goal was to disrupt some of that chemistry, and we had to match their physique and now we also have experienced guys, guys who have been able to play together a bit. So that means we’re making progress, doesn’t it? We are progressing.
Gilgeous-Alexander is speeding things up. He got into the paint at will, his teammates took advantage of it. Pangos came off the bench and hit a three; Kassius Robertson hit two. Meanwhile, Olynyk – the versatile big man from Kelowna, B.C. – was also doing his part: punishing small defenders on switches or putting the ball on the ground and smashing his way to the paint against over-matched bigs .
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Canada led 28-21 after the first quarter and the deep players kept their momentum going for most of the second quarter as Cory Joseph, Pangos, Phil and Thomas Scrubb and veteran Melvin Ejim all played. And no matter who was on the field, they all bought defensively.
“It was the performance we needed. I thought everyone who touched down had contributed,” Nurse said. “I thought everyone was looking back to see who played well and everyone did something good.”
“We were very disruptive, defensively,” was Gilgeous-Alexander’s pregame scouting report on Canada’s strengths.
They certainly played that way as they finished the half with a significant advantage in turnovers which they regularly turned into attack. Argentina had their moments – Nicolas Laprovittola finished the half with a game-high 21 of 30 points, and his three at the end of the second quarter were part of a quick 6-0 push that cut what had been a 16-point lead to 10. But Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t have that. He entered his own line and when Olynyk was fouled in transition and hit a pair of free throws, Canada was able to take a 52-39 lead in the half.
They didn’t rest to start the third, going on a 13-4 run to start the half bolstered by a hat-trick from Nickeil Alexander-Walker – who was out for most of the game and fouled later in the third quarter – followed by one of his cousin, Gilgeous-Alexander, to give Canada a 22-point lead after four minutes of play.
As was the case in the first half, Nurse was able to get to his bench without missing a half. A Thomas Scrubb three set up by Joseph kept the lead at 20 with 2:13 remaining before Argentina reduced the lead to 83-68 to start the fourth quarter.
Canada were able to hold their own from there, withstanding a late flurry in Argentina that was muffled when Gilgeous-Alexander found Olynyk for a late save in transition.
Canada’s next stop is to travel to Panama City, Panama to face – yes, Panama – on Monday. The task will be a little more difficult as Gilgeous-Alexander was stopped by the Thunder following the season-ending foot injury that rookie Chet Holmgren suffered in a pro-am game recently. Alexander-Walker will also miss the game as he undergoes surgery to remove his wisdom teeth and Joseph has a family affair.
But progress is being made. It was obvious against Argentina, and it was also clear that Gilgeous-Alexander is the kind of player who can step things up.
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