Canada sets sights on success on World Cup stage with goal of Olympic berth complete
The goal of earning an Olympic berth is checked off, but that's not where it ends in the mind of Canada head coach Jordi Fernandez.
Canada qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 2000 following an 88-85 comeback win over No. 1-ranked and defending champion Spain on Sunday at the FIBA Men's Basketball World Cup. The 15th-ranked Canadians needed a top-two finish among the seven Americas teams and did so alongside the U.S.
While acknowledging how "special" it is for the national program, Fernandez was quick to point to Canada having three more games — including its quarterfinal matchup on Wednesday against Slovenia in Manila, Philippines.
"We didn’t come here just to go to the Olympics," he said in Sunday's post-game press conference. "And like I told the guys, we wanna make sure that everybody knows that we’re knocking at the door and that we’re thirsty for more.
"And that goes with getting better, believing that you could still be better."
The winner between Canada and the seventh-ranked Slovenians will face Serbia — which defeated Lithuania 87-68 on Tuesday to advance — in the semifinals on Friday. The U.S. — which beat Italy 100-63 on Tuesday — awaits Wednesday's winner between Germany and Latvia.
Canada and Slovenia enter the contest having gone 4-1 through the first two group stages, with Slovenia coming off a 100-71 drubbing from 11th-ranked Germany in their last outing.
Canada is third in the tournament averaging 95.4 points per game, only behind Serbia (98.2) and the U.S. (101.2).
Canada held its opponents to just 73.4 points per game through the first two rounds, good for second in the tournament behind Germany (72.8). Spain was the first to score more than 75 against Canada.
Meanwhile, Slovenia is 10th at 88.4 points per game while surrendering 81.8 points across its five games.
The game features an enticing matchup between two young all-NBA first team guards.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 25, leads Canada in points (23.8) — also fifth in the tournament — rebounds (6.6) and assists (5.2) per game.
Luka Doncic also leads Slovenia in all three categories, in addition to being the tournament's leading scorer (26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists).
The 24-year-old superstar guard for the NBA's Dallas Mavericks will serve as a test for Canada.
But after its last showing, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Gilgeous-Alexander spoke highly of his team's defensive prowess.
Canada came back from a 12-point deficit in the fourth and held Spain to just three field goals in the final frame. The first came almost four minutes into the quarter and the last two with 15 seconds left in the game.
"We have a lot of defensive versatility," he said Sunday. "A lot of coverages we can do, a lot of defenders on the team. We have two of the best defenders in the world on the perimeter, I would think.
"And when we all play together defensively and play on a string, it's hard for anybody to score. Obviously you can't be perfect but as much as we could put that together, we'll be the best version of ourselves and that's where practice and getting better comes in and watching film."
While it was an improvement on Friday's 69-65 loss to Brazil, Fernandez says Canada still has room to get better in multiple ways.
“We found a way to convert after turnovers," he said of Sunday's game. "We had eight fast break points, I still think that we can run a lot more. And we have to create more catch-and-shoot opportunities. We did better in the second half.
"When we started playing fast, then we shot more threes. Some of them didn’t go in but those are the ones that give you energy. Once we play at a pace where we shoot 35 or 40 (per cent), everybody’s gonna be scared. We got to get there.
"Like I said before, our composure is something that we have to work on. It comes with experience but anything other than that, I cannot give you the secrets that we’re going to work on."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2023.