Canada meets Czechs in semifinal of must-win Olympic basketball qualifying event

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VICTORIA — The torn Achilles tendon that sidelined Dwight Powell for much of the NBA basketball season has healed and now the Canadian is making up for lost time with a dominant performance at a must-win Olympic qualifying tournament.

The Dallas Mavericks forward spoke Friday ahead of Canada's do-or-die semifinal matchup with the Czech Republic, saying he's feeling excellent physically and is relishing the opportunity to represent his country.

"I'm in a good place right now," Powell said. "Any time you go through that sort of injury it changes the way you approach things from that point on. Thankfully, it's fully healed and I'm able to compete."

Powell has been earning praise for his rebounding at both ends of the court and averaged eight rebounds per game through Canada's first two outings of the tournament. Cleaning up along the boards has been one of Canada's primary focuses since Day One of training camp, said the 29-year-old Toronto native.

"We see it really as a collective team effort," he said. "A lot of guys are chipping in to help rebound."

Canada's head coach Nick Nurse, who also coaches the NBA's Toronto Raptors, said the Canadian team has grown in a short time and the players are focused on winning when they face the Czechs at Victoria's Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre on Saturday.

"We've learned a lot," he said. "I think we've come a long ways and have a long ways to go."

The Czech Republic, led by Tomas Satoransky of the NBA's Chicago Bulls, are a strong, veteran team that includes two seven-foot-tall players, Nurse said.

"This is a very experienced European team. Their big guys are tough, physical," he said.

Canada must win both the semifinal against the Czech Republic and Sunday's final to book its first Olympic appearance in 21 years.

The Canadians have already defeated Greece 97-91 and China 109-79 en route to the semis.

Eight NBA players — including Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans), Trey Lyles (San Antonio), Mychal Mulder (Golden State), captain Cory Joseph (Detroit), Luguentz Dort (Oklahoma), Andrew Wiggins (Golden State), RJ Barrett (New York) and Powell — are on the roster, widely considered the most-talented Canadian men's basketball team in history for this week's tournament on home court.

The 12-man roster is rounded out by Trae Bell-Haynes, Anthony Bennett, Aaron Doornekamp and Andrew Nicholson.

Powell said Canada is approaching the game against the Czechs as an opportunity to reach the highest stage in international basketball competition, the Olympic Games.

"You really have to focus on the things you can control and that's our pace, our tempo, our game plan," he said.

The semifinal will be Team Canada's first opportunity to play with fans in the stands. Relaxed COVID-19 protocols will allow 10 per cent seating capacity, which is about 800 people.

"If it's 10 fans, if it's a 1,000 fans or if it's 20,000, regardless, it's a unique motivating factor I think we'll take well," said Powell. "To be able to have support like that in our home country is obviously very special."

Canada, ranked No. 21 in the world, is in Group A with Greece and China for the six-team tournament that started Tuesday. Group B is made up of Uruguay, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

There are three other last-chance tournaments happening in Croatia, Lithuania and Serbia this week to determine the final Olympic spots.

The Canadian women's team, ranked fourth, earned its third-consecutive Olympic berth last February.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2021.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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