How it all came apart for Canada at FIBA World Cup

William LouNBA reporter
Canada bows out of the 'Group of Death' (Photo by Ye Aung Thu / AFP)
Canada bows out of the 'Group of Death' (Photo by Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

The Canadian men’s basketball team was eliminated from contention in the 2019 FIBA World Cup after losing to Lithuania 92-69 on Tuesday.

As with the loss to Australia to open the tournament, there was simply a gulf in class between Canada’s depleted roster and their opponent. Lithuania held a size advantage across the board, and Canada simply couldn’t defend the interior as Lithuania assaulted the rim for 19 offensive rebounds and 52 points in the paint.

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Canada will play in the consolation bracket in hopes of securing one of four berths for next year’s Olympic qualifiers ahead of Tokyo 2020.

Here are three takeaways from today’s loss:

Size matters, a lot

Lithuania was always going to be a nightmare matchup for the Canadians simply because of their overwhelming size advantage. It’s not just that Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis tower over everyone on the Canadian roster, but even their wings had their way against their counterparts.

Nick Nurse started small in hopes of countering Lithuania’s style of play. Nurse had Cory Joseph, Kevin Pangos, and Phil Scrubb in the backcourt, while Melvin Ejim slid up a position to play power forward alongside Khem Birch. The plan originally was to show a hard double team any time Valanciunas or Sabonis caught the ball in the post on defence, and to stretch out the Lithuanians on the perimeter on offence, but that plan was doomed from the start.

Offensively, Lithuania was able to pick the Canadians apart with their decisive passing and movement. Sabonis and Valanciunas would quickly reverse the ball after drawing two defenders, and their teammates made explosive and powerful drives to the rim for layups and floaters. And defensively, Canada’s guards were unable to break down bigger defenders, as Lithuania was able to limit Canada to contested layups that went nowhere.

Canada traded punches with Lithuania to the best of their ability in the first half, but the undersized side tired as the game went on. Ejim fouled out, Birch was limited by foul trouble, and Canada ended up bleeding 23 second-chance points on 19 offensive rebounds. Lithuania broke the game wide open with a 24-18 advantage in the third quarter, and finished strong with a 22-15 finish in the end.

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Gimmicky play

It’s almost as if Canada adopted an inferior mentality against both Australia and Lithuania, because Nurse has gambled in both games with gimmicky strategies rather than playing straight up. Both times, it has failed.

Nurse threw everything at the wall against Lithuania. He opened with his small-ball lineup and doubled the post at every opportunity, but that led to Lithuania’s wings parading to the paint and all his key players landing in foul trouble. Nurse then switched to a 2-3 zone, but again, the Lithuanians countered by attacking the glass and securing offensive rebounds. Nurse even tried a box-and-one despite the Lithuanians not having a particularly dangerous perimeter player to neutralize, and they immediately responded by drilling an open three.

It just all screams of being inferior. Experienced and talented teams like Lithuania and Australia won’t be beat by gimmicks, but in all fairness to Nurse, that’s all this Canada team has to offer. Nurse was given an impossible task of making the most out of a limited team, and it was always going to be an uphill battle.

Having said that, it is damning that Canada lacks the cohesiveness of other teams in the tournament. Joseph and Birch are the only NBA-level players that committed to the program, but they look disheartened and have at times shown frustration at their teammates. Canada’s defence has also looked ragged and disjointed, and the problem only becomes more exacerbated by Nurse’s hyper-aggressive schemes.

How it all came apart

Even if you put aside the notable absences, the squad that ultimately made it to China is not close to what Canada had on paper heading into the tournament.

The late arrival of Joseph has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, Joseph is quite clearly Canada’s best and most accomplished player, and he has been a positive contributor on both ends of the floor against both Australia and Lithuania. However, his presence has also thrown the team out of balance, as Pangos is no longer as impactful without the ball in his hands, and Canada’s ball movement as a whole has tailed off with Joseph calling his own number so often. Although Joseph’s dedication to the national program is commendable, his contributions would have been greater had he made the full commitment to the pre-season. Not only did Joseph arrive on the eve of the tournament battling a 12-hour time difference, but his conditioning hasn’t been as sharp as it could be.

Kelly Olynyk’s injury has also been devastating. Olynyk slipped on a wet spot and suffered a knee bruise in a meaningless exhibition game in early August, and that was enough to rule him out of the tournament. Canada has no means of replacing Olynyk’s contributions on both ends, as his perimeter game was essential to Canada’s offence that is predicated on pick-and-roll and dribble hand-offs. With all due respect to Owen Klassen, he is not up to par at this level, and it’s almost comical how overmatched the Canadians have been in the frontcourt.

Finally, the moment seems to have gotten to youngster Andrew Nembhard. The 19-year-old was one of Canada’s best players in the tune-up tournament, but he has been virtually invisible with zero points and three fouls through two games. Nembhard is the second-youngest player in the entire tournament, and it takes a special competitor with a particular mentality to hang with grown men at this level. Nembhard’s disappearance has left Canada with no shot creation off the bench, and it has made Nurse’s life immeasurably more difficult because Nembhard was also a backup small forward along with Oshae Brissett, who also pulled out of the tournament with a knee injury right before the team traveled to China.

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