TORONTO – It’s been years in the making.
Those words, sang by Arkells lead singer Max Kerman, opened the game broadcast as the Canadian men’s basketball club began its latest Olympic pursuit.
It was a fitting choice of intro music, and not just because of the band’s northern roots, hoops fandom, or ties to the national team’s head coach. Everybody that helped make this moment possible – from the event organizers to the many players and coaches that sacrificed to get them there – had been waiting a long time to see it come to fruition.
So, when Canada finally tipped off FIBA’s last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament against Greece on Tuesday night, it was surreal.
This isn’t exactly how it was expected to go.
Instead of taking place a year ago, just ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last summer, as initially planned, it was pushed back 12 months on account of a global pandemic.
Instead of playing in a building full of loud and patriotic Canadian fans, the arena was empty and quiet enough to hear coaches cursing from the bench, although it will accommodate 10 per cent capacity crowds by the end of the week.
Then, instead of the blowout win a lot of people anticipated – Canada was favoured by 14.5 points heading into the game – the host country was tested out of the gate. The result, a 97-91 victory for the Canadians, was the one they wanted but it didn’t come easy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I don’t think it ever entered our minds that it wasn’t going to be really hard,” said head coach Nick Nurse. “Winning any game is really hard and when you are playing a meaningful competition against a good team, a physical team and a big team and a well-coached team, you are going to be put under some duress. That’s one of the things we talked about was we just had to keep playing, hang in there, keep playing, learn, play a little harder, play a little more together. But it’s good. I’m glad the way they bounced back through it. It should help us as part of our learning experience.”
With a short training camp, which a few players were allowed to join in progress, and no exhibition games ahead of the tournament, this was their first opportunity to play against somebody other than themselves, and it showed.
Thanks to some hot shooting, and aided by Canada’s defensive miscues, Greece raced out to an early lead. Even without two of three Antetokounmpo brothers and multiple injured starters, the Greeks were the better team through 20 minutes and took a 50-46 advantage into halftime.
The second half belonged to Canada, though. That was the team people had been waiting to see: versatile offensively, active and aggressive on defence, and lethal in transition. The hosts rattled off a dominant 35-21 run to take a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, and while Greece made a late push, Canada’s stars helped close the door. That’s where the talent disparity was damning.
Nurse used 10 players in the opener, all of whom have NBA experience under the belts and eight of which are currently in the league. Greece’s roster only featured one NBA player, Lakers forward and Giannis’ younger brother Kostas Antetokounmpo, who finished with four points in 10 minutes of action.
Canada’s two primary scorers, Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett, got off to slow starts but it was Nickeil Alexander-Walker, making his senior team debut, that carried the offence early. The 22-year-old guard, who is coming off a breakout sophomore season with the Pelicans, scored 14 of his 18 points in the second quarter and kept his team in the game until Wiggins and Barrett took over.
After scoring just three points on 1-of-4 shooting in the opening half, Barrett was more aggressive in looking for his offence and scored 19 points on 7-of-10 over the final 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Wiggins led the club with 23 points and hit a couple of crucial turnaround mid-range jumpers in the final two minutes.
“They did a great job,” Nurse said. “Part of the learning experiences is, can we get the ball where it needs to go late? I know it didn't look like much but there was some pretty good organization there in getting those shots up and getting the spacing right and getting these two guys involved, you know RJ and Wig. So pretty good for especially for a first game, but it's definitely nice having two guys that can score like that.”
Canada will have the talent advantage over whichever of the five other teams they face in the next five days. However, to win three more games, be the last team standing in this tournament and punch their ticket to the Olympics for the first time in 21 years, they know they can’t do it on talent alone.
They’re learning each other and building chemistry on the fly. Last week, Alexander-Walker spoke about defensive communication, a point of emphasis in camp but also something that was very much a work in progress. You could see that play out on Tuesday, especially in the first half, as they struggled to defend the pick and roll and were late on their rotations and closeouts, resulting in several wide-open threes for Greece. Many of their late-game turnovers offensively were also the product of that inexperience as a unit.
Afterwards, Barrett was asked whether that unfamiliarity showed itself more on offence or defence, as Nurse interjected.
“Or out-of-bounds plays, or press offence, or zone offence,” he said with a laugh.
“It was kind of everywhere,” Barrett answered. “But we did a good job of just figuring it out and sometimes in basketball that's how it goes. Sometimes you could draw up all the game plans, everything you want, [but] you just got to go out and feel the game out and just grind out to win anyway you can.”
With a win against China on Wednesday, Canada can lock up the top seed in its group going into Saturday’s semi-finals, when the degree of difficulty would go up.
How they fare in their remaining games, and particularly against tough Turkey and Czech Republic teams over the weekend, will depend on how quickly they can expedite the learning process and get on the same page.