FIBA World Cup: Canada learns how much program history matters in semifinal loss to Serbia

Canada has proven it can be a basketball powerhouse for the foreseeable future. All it needs now is experience.

The Serbian men’s national team just made the finals of the FIBA World Cup for the third time in program history. The runners-up of the 2014 World Cup, 2016 Olympics and 2017 EuroBasket, No. 6 ranked Serbia is one of the oldest and most experienced teams in the world. And they are also one of the winningest, with two World Cup titles, three EuroBasket titles, and two silver medals at the Olympic Games.

On Friday, Serbia added another line to their resume with an impressive 95-86 win over Canada for a spot in the gold medal game. They did it without the best player in the world, Nikola Jokic, while also missing other key pieces like Milos Teodosic, Aleksej Pokusevski, Vasilije Micic and Boban Marjanovic.

Serbia has a deep-seeded passion for basketball dating back to when they were a part of the former Yugoslavia, who famously won gold at the 1980 Olympics and were runners-up in 1988 — the Olympics that led to America creating the Dream Team four years later in a foundational moment for the growth of basketball worldwide.

One of the places that was most affected by that growth was Canada, a nation fairly new to basketball and without a storied history in the NBA or at the international level. However, slowly but surely, the country grew into a basketball powerhouse, seeing more and more players make it to the NBA before Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs and led the Canadian national team to a seventh-place finish in the 2000 Olympics.

Now, 23 years later, a Canadian team with seven NBA players and a superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went through the toughest path in the tournament to qualify for their first Olympic Games since then. But they lost their semifinal matchup to Serbia, and it was never particularly close, with Serbia playing a nearly perfect game for the entire 40 minutes, shooting 62% from the field and 45% from 3 while winning nearly every major statistical category.

“Credit to Serbia. They played a great game,” RJ Barrett said after the loss. “They played hard, they played physical, they're very well coached and disciplined. So, I gotta give them credit for that.”

“I'm proud of my guys. It was not perfect. We were okay offensively. We were atrocious defensively,” Canada’s head coach Jordi Fernandez said. “We didn't prepare well enough for the game. And that's the thing with these guys: They work every day, we get better. We move on to the next game.”

Led by Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, Serbia had one of the best offenses in the tournament heading into the game, scoring 98.2 points per game (second in the whole tournament) on 55% shooting (first) and 38% from 3 (seventh).

Bogdanovic and the Serbians got off to a quick start, taking an 8-1 and then 21-13 lead as they executed their offense to a tee, moving the ball around to their preferred spots on the floor as they exploited Canada’s lack of footspeed on the perimeter and lack of size in the paint, getting Dwight Powell and Dillon Brooks into early foul trouble.

Then, they exploited Canada’s lack of depth. After four of Canada’s bench players came into the game late in the first quarter when almost all the starters, including Gilgeous-Alexander, got into foul trouble, Trae Bell-Haynes and Kyle Alexander made mistakes and Serbia went on a 5-0 run. In fact, the Canadians were minus-10 in the four minutes that Gilgeous-Alexander sat on the bench in the first half, when they found themselves down 52-39.

Canada's gold medal hopes at the FIBA World Cup are over, but the program's future still looks bright. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)
Canada's gold medal hopes at the FIBA World Cup are over, but the program's future still looks bright. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

Defensively, Serbian guards Stefan Jovic and Dejan Davidovic made things difficult for Gilgeous-Alexander, who had his worst game of the tournament, denying him the ball and shading a ton of help his way as they held him scoreless in the first quarter and to just five points at the half.

Serbia forced the other Canadians to make decisions with the ball in their hands and they struggled, highlighting the lack of trustworthy ball-handlers on the team. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Barrett, Kelly Olynyk and Brooks all turned the ball over at least twice, allowing Serbia to take advantage in transition, where they scored 18 points off of turnovers and 14 fast-break points. Canada, meanwhile, struggled to take advantage of Serbia’s 17 turnovers, scoring just 13 points on the break.

“Great game tonight against Canada. For me, the best defensive team [in the tournament],” Serbian head coach Svetislav Pesic said after the game. “But we are not bad also on defense. We demonstrated one more time that we can play defense, that we can play transition offense.

“The very important point in preparing the game was to take away points from transition. This is the key,” Pesic added. “Secondly, very good one-on-one defense, especially against Shai — one of the best players that I watched in my career. And young. Of course he needs the time, he needs experience. Great player. For our team, he was additional motivation to take him out of the game. Difficult, but I think we did this job with great success.”

Down 13 at the half, Canada was hoping to pull off one more miraculous comeback after doing it against Latvia and Spain earlier in the tournament. But while they won the third quarter 24-23, they never figured out how to stop the Serbian attack.

Fernandez tried everything, going from drop defense to switch to a zone, but Serbia was always one step ahead of them, either driving and kicking for open shots or feeding big man Nikola Milutinov in the post for mismatches. Their off-ball movement was also crisp, running around screens and forcing Canada’s defenders to constantly think twice about where they should be.

It didn’t help that both Brooks and Olynyk picked up their fourth fouls in the third quarter and that Powell was experiencing back pain for the entire second half, forcing Fernandez to try to play Melvin Ejim and Zach Edey off the bench in his never-ending search for defensive answers.

In the end, none of it worked, as Canada picked up 25 personal fouls and sent Serbia to the free-throw line 20 times in the game. Canada got tired as the game went along and never found the balance between playing physical defense and staying out of foul trouble.

“We just didn't guard anybody,” Fernandez said about Canada’ defense. “And if you don't guard anybody at any level, then you don't get to win. So, that's what we need to learn for the next game is: we have to defend and we have to do it as a team. So if we do that, we'll give ourselves a chance.”

Bogdanovic closed things out for the Serbians with a pair of steals and jump shots late in the fourth quarter, finishing the game with 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, 3-of-4 from 3, along with four rebounds, three assists and three steals. But it was a well-rounded attack from Serbia, who had 10 players contribute in significant ways.

“It doesn't matter who's not here. It's all about this group of guys — whoever's here, whoever's wearing this Serbian jersey,” Marko Guduric said after the game. “We never give up. We fight till the end. It's in our blood. You know, we have this, how do you say: we are proud of our country and we represent our families, our people. And you see the crowd that we have here and I cannot imagine how it is now in Serbia.

“It means everything to represent our country in this jersey. Playing for ourselves first and our families and for all the people in Serbia. It's a great honour and we cannot wait for the final game.”

Canada, meanwhile, will play the United States for the bronze medal on Sunday morning. After already surpassing their best-ever finish at a World Cup — which was sixth in 1988 — they will try to capture their first medal at a World Cup and the first in a global basketball competition since the 1936 Olympic games.

Canada doesn’t have the same storied basketball history that Serbia does. But year by year, they are getting closer. And after already qualifying for the 2024 Olympics, a bronze medal in this competition would be a significant step in the right direction for a program that has been building toward this moment for many years.

“We don't have a lot of experience playing these games — myself first and our group of guys,” Fernandez said. “But if we keep doing what we're doing, I think we will be really good. I'm excited for our future. I'm excited for these guys and the young guys coming in, having these guys as a role model and seeing how you work and how you work throughout the summer.

“Obviously for us being a program that is building and has a lot of great years in front, it means the world, right? For our people at home, for these guys here. And everybody here: our front office, the board. Just to go back home with a medal I think is a great accomplishment. None of these guys have ever been in this position. And I think that to win it would mean that we fought for something.”

Regardless of if they come home with a medal or not, Canada has already proven that they can be a basketball powerhouse for the foreseeable future. The only thing they need is experience. For as much as they got better at adapting to the international style of play as the tournament went along, Canada has one of the youngest and most inexperienced rosters in the entire competition, and their lack of experience and depth showed against Serbia.

Fortunately, the 12 players on the roster got a ton of valuable experience from this tournament, and most of them will be back next summer with a chance to try to go for gold again. After all, the goal is to continuously add — add experience, add players, and add to the culture of basketball in Canada so that one day it, too, can be looked at as one of the winningest programs in the world.