Canada opens Olympic qualifying tournament with win vs. Greece

Here are five takeaways from Canada’s 97-91 win over Greece in the 2021 Olympic qualifying tournament.

One: Don’t expect it to be easy

Just because Canada has eight NBA players on the roster, it doesn’t guarantee anything. International basketball is a different game, and while the Canadians have the most talent, the first half of this game was a humble reminder that execution and experience is half the battle.

Beating Greece is a tremendous way to start their path towards Olympic qualification, but there were mistakes to learn from. Greece controlled the entire first half by meticulously picking apart Canada’s lack of continuity on the defensive end, and it was only through the hot shooting of Nickeil Alexander-Walker that the deficit was four points at halftime. Greece won’t be the first opponent to punch above their weight, and Canada will need to gel quickly. Not only is this an unfamiliar group, but Canada didn’t play any warm-up games, which was clear from the mistakes they made early on.

What’s encouraging is how Canada responded in the second half by showing their quality on both ends of the floor. Talent is still the deciding factor in close games, and there was plenty of it on display between RJ Barrett plowing to the rim at will, Lu Dort seemingly guarding the entire team by himself, and with Andrew Wiggins draining silky turnaround jumpers to close out the win.

Canada's Andrew Wiggins looks for an open man as Greece players try to steal the ball. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)

Canada’s Andrew Wiggins looks for an open man as Greece players try to steal the ball. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)

Two: Nick Nurse is at the wheel

The responsibility of getting the players to gel is on the coaching staff. Nurse had a week of training camp to prepare his team and to sort out his lineups, and he hit all the right buttons to record this win.

Nurse opened the game with a starting lineup featuring two bigs in Dwight Powell and Trey Lyles, which is understandable since both players are slightly undersized to play center. However, Canada looked its best when Nurse shifted to a smaller group in the second half with the 6-foot-4 Dort in place of Lyles. This arrangement allowed Canada to switch more pick-and-roll actions on defense, which cut off Greece’s lanes to the basket, while still not conceding ground in the paint. Dort was crucial on that front, not only in his ability to pressure the ball, but also with how he battled in the post to deny any interior passes.

The strength of Nurse’s team is its athleticism. That’s the one distinct advantage it holds over the other five teams in this tournament. Canada took the lead in the third by being more disruptive on defense and getting transition opportunities even against a Greek team that was dead set on sending all five guys back. Even in the half court, Canada’s wings can generally blow past their defenders to get inside the paint, with Barrett and Alexander-Walker being especially prolific tonight. Greece opened the game in a zone defense, which is a sign of respect and also something they should have stuck with for longer stretches.

Nurse’s job will be solving the puzzle with each opponent. His roster can play big or it can go small, and he has prepared it to play in various coverages. Nurse didn’t even need to break out his signature zone coverages but they will likely come out later in the tournament. This isn’t a repeat of the 2019 FIBA World Cup – Nurse has the firepower to compete this time.

Three: Andrew Wiggins was sorely missed

Let’s be honest — nobody took more blame for Canada’s basketball team than Wiggins since 2015. And while some of the complaints were valid, it wasn’t fair that he was singled out for not participating when so many others also missed time.

In any case, Wiggins is here for this run, and he was awesome in the opener. Wiggins was so clearly a cut above the rest with how smooth he was offensively, and although he did record six turnovers, Wiggins was able to get a good shot at will. Look no further than the two midrange jumpers he hit to secure the win as he finished with a game-high 23 points.

There’s a maturity in his game that was lacking from his last tournament run. Wiggins is much improved defensively and can be a true disruptive force with his length and quickness. Offensively, the jumper is more reliable and he’s still a threat to blow by anyone to finish with a dunk. Within the context of this Canadian team, Wiggins is the go-to scorer and someone who will be relied upon to cover the most ground with his rotations. On both fronts, he was excellent.

Four: Dwight Powell is the unsung hero

If there’s one weakness in Canada’s roster, it’s the frontcourt. There isn’t that 7-foot presence who can anchor the paint and control the glass, nor the versatile offensive hub who can open the paint. Nurse will need to carefully manage his rotation, sometimes overloading the frontcourt just to gain some measure of control down low.

Most of the heavy lifting will be done by Powell, who was vital in the win. He was a perfect 4-for-4 from the field and from the line, while also recording five offensive rebounds to create extra possessions. But the most important aspect was his defense. Powell was disciplined throughout, switched onto guards when the coverage called for it, and was generally able to keep the Greeks from scoring at the rim.

There was a noticeable difference when Powell checked out, as Anthony Bennett, Andrew Nicholson, and Lyles couldn’t replicate the same intensity and activity.

It won’t be an easy ride. Greece roughed up Powell all night, grabbing him when the ref wasn’t looking, shoving him in the back for rebounds, slapping him in the chest to keep him from elevating, and Powell was noticeably frustrated. But instead of backing down or turning his attention to the refs, Powell hammered Greece right back, throwing down dunk after dunk while also tipping out misses during important moments.

Five: Hot mics in huddles lead to fire quotes

Next to consulting Steve Javie in Secaucus, N.J., the most useless part of NBA broadcasts is the mic’d up segments. They’re always sanitized to the point where all that’s left is mindless clapping and a few cheers. It’s a waste of time.

FIBA games are different. During each timeout, there is a mic that is in both huddles, and you get to hear the uncut emotion and urgency that you would expect from fierce competitors. Nurse dropped an expletive during a firm speech in the first half about Canada’s need to defend, and Rick Pitino topped that with two F-bombs as he implored Greece to regain composure on offense. (It didn’t work — Greece responded with three turnovers in the next four possessions.)

There’s a place for decorum and decency, but sports are also about the emotional journey. The game of putting a ball through a hoop doesn’t really mean much without the emotional ante. It’s refreshing to be in that huddle where adults are trying to solve problems in real time. To hear it straight from Nurse and Pitino was a true highlight of the broadcast.

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