Canada uses team game to edge out Nigeria in World Cup tune-up

William LouNBA reporter

The Canadian Men’s Basketball Team squeaked by Nigeria by a score of 96-87 in the first of two exhibition games ahead of the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Here are five takeaways from Canada’s first taste of competitive action.

One — Spread the wealth

When head coach Nick Nurse said at practice that the offense will need to carry the scoring, this was what he had in mind. Canada tallied 96 points on 28 assists in 40 minutes with five players scoring in double-digits in Wednesday’s win.

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It was an encouraging start given that Nurse has yet to install his full package after just three practices. Nurse wasn’t only calling out plays, but he was directing his players on which cuts to make and where to station themselves. On the whole, the Canadians played with a team-first mentality that was encouraging.

“Clearly, when we move the ball and cut hard, we’re going to get shots,” Nurse said.

Of course, the process always looks good when shots are falling. Canada nailed 15 threes — including nine in the second quarter — which accounted for the difference against the Nigerians who shot just 5-of-31 from distance. This is a roster filled with established shooters, as players like Kyle Wiltjer, Melvin Ejim, and Brady Heslip are all capable of catching fire. If Canada were to pull off an upset and advance deep in the tournament, they’ll need more nights like this.

Without proven scorers like Andrew Wiggins, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, R.J. Barrett and Jamal Murray, the Canadians are light on one-on-one playmakers. That’s why it’s imperative for the players to trust in Nurse’s system, because they’re not overwhelming anyone on sheer talent alone.

If they play as a group and get a few threes to drop, the Canadians can be dangerous.

Two — Size is a concern

The main reason why Nigeria was able to hang around was their sheer advantage in size, which led to a 13-8 offensive rebounding advantage. If the Nigerians had a big man with any type of scoring touch, they would have likely won the game.

Size will be the Achilles’ heel for Canada in the upcoming tournament. Khem Birch is the only centre who actually lives up to the billing. Past that, it’s an assortment of undersized power forwards, and even their selection at small forward is questionable. The Canadians do have scrappy guards who can dig down and win turnovers, but for the most part interior defence will be an area of weakness.

This was not exactly by choice, as the losses of Tristan Thompson and Dwight Powell tied Canada’s hands. That being said, it’s also clear that Nurse generally prefers skill over size, so it’s a trade-off the Canadians are willing to live with. A toothpick like Wiltjer won’t win many battles in the paint, but he could knock down enough 3s to force the opponent into downsizing.

Advancing past the group stage will be difficult for this reason. Lithuania is stocked with 7-footers, and the frontcourt of Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis will likely give Canada fits. Similarly, the Canadians might struggle to contain Australia, who feature two bruisers in Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut who can pummel Canada down low.

Three — Kelly Olynyk is a question mark

Of greater concern is the status of Kelly Olynyk, who left the game after slipping on a wet spot in the third quarter. Olynyk banged his knee loudly and immediately limped to the locker room with the help of a trainer. Nurse said after the game that Olynyk was taken to receive X-rays.

Olynyk would be a devastating loss for Canada if he were also to pull the plug after Wednesday’s injury scare. Not only are the Canadians already light on bigs, but Olynyk is essential for the offence. Most of the actions that Nurse likes to run favour a skilled big like Olynyk, who can stretch it beyond the arc while also being able to create off the dribble. Without that dimension, Canada’s offence can become predictable.

Four — Andrew Nembhard shows promise

After leading comfortably in double digits for most of the game, the third unit for the Canadians nearly surrendered the lead as the Nigerian starters pressed for a comeback in the fourth quarter. The lead whittled down to three points, before an unlikely hero emerged.

Andrew Nembhard, who is the baby of the group as a sophomore playing in Florida, came alive for eight points down the stretch to seal the deal. The 6-foot-5 guard created contact on his drives, found Birch for a thunderous dunk, and put the game on ice with a short jumper with under a minute left.

Nurse was quick to praise the 19-year-old: “He was great. That’s kind of what he’s looked like in practice. He’s kind of a guy that can make plays and create and get his own. He plays with a really good demeanour. He doesn’t play like a young kid and he just kind of does his thing and takes his openings when they’re there.”

Five — Chris Boucher’s mysterious absence

Boucher figured to be a prominent player for Team Canada, as Nurse raved in recent practices that the gangly 6-foot-11 centre had expanded his game. And yet, Boucher didn’t even dress as he watched from the bench in a hoodie.

It also didn’t seem to be a coincidence that Canada happened to add centre Owen Klassen to training camp on the same day Boucher sat. Nurse was vague about Boucher’s absence when asked about it after the game, offering only that Klassen provides more size down low.

Boucher’s status moving forward is definitely something to watch. At this point, Canada needs all hands on deck.

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