FIBA World Cup: Shorthanded Canada drop second tune-up against Nigeria

William LouNBA reporter

The Canadian men’s senior basketball team dropped the second leg of their exhibition showcase against Nigeria ahead of the upcoming 2019 FIBA World Cup, losing by a score of 90-81 at the Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg.

Here are three takeaways from Friday’s loss:

One — Depth is an issue

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Between Chris Boucher withdrawing at the last minute, and Kelly Olynyk suffering a knee bruise in Wednesday’s game, the Canadians found themselves extremely shorthanded in the frontcourt.

The problem only worsened early in the fourth quarter when Kyle Wiltjer limped off with what appeared to be an ankle sprain, leaving Nick Nurse with just three bigs at his disposal in Khem Birch, Thomas Scrubb and recent call-up Owen Klassen.

As it stands, Birch is already playing a huge role for Canada in the upcoming World Cup. He is the team’s only true rim protector, and the only pick-and-roll target capable of finishing above the rim in traffic. Birch has also tried his hand at a few post-ups, but his handle is loose and it leaves him prone to turnovers. But with the team in dire straits, Birch will be given as much responsibility as he can handle.

Past that, the Canadians will be relying on limited players like Scrubb, and a last-second addition in Klassen, who appears to be mostly a ground-bound banger in the mold of Aron Baynes. Neither is starting-calibre at the international level, but Nurse’s hands are tied. And with such limited options in the frontcourt, Team Canada will need huge efforts from their perimeter players to have any hope of advancing.

Two — Standout veterans

Fortunately, the Canadians do have lots of quality on the wing, including two standout veterans in Kevin Pangos and Melvin Ejim, who will likely start at shooting guard and small forward in the upcoming tournament.

Pangos is just a solid all-around player. He battles defensively and is always in good position to provide help. Offensively, Pangos is somewhat undersized and doesn’t have the quickness nor the hops to break down a set defense, but he’s a clever player who attacks gaps and can shoot reliably from both the midrange and the three-point line. Although it’s only been a week, it’s clear that Nurse has taken a liking to what Pangos brings as a secondary playmaker next to Cory Joseph.

Ejim slots in as a do-it-all role player that suits every occasion. He has seen time at power forward in small-ball looks, but he’s just as capable playing on the perimeter as a 3-and-D option. Ejim doesn’t necessarily excel in any area, but he has a good nose for the ball and his work rate is impressive. Moreover, Ejim might be Canada’s only defensive matchup against point-forward types, as backup Oshae Brissett is a tad too skinny to hold his position despite his impressive leaping ability.

Three — Late-game execution

So long as the Canadians play defense and knock down a few threes, they should be able to hang with most of the competition. But when it comes down to crunch time, creating efficient offense will be an issue.

Simply put, the talent is just lacking in the absence of Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Andrew Wiggins and R.J. Barrett. Down the stretch of Friday’s game, it was up to Cory Joseph — a solid player but by no means a closer — to create off the dribble and, unsurprisingly, the results were underwhelming save for an and-one finish. Joseph missed two threes and had a costly turnover in the final moments as Nigeria held on for the win.

Team Canada was also stymied by Nigeria’s switching scheme, which forced individual players to create off mismatches. Save for a few out-of-bounds sequences that got the ball into the post, the Canadians struggled to create open looks, and that allowed Nigeria to put up a 28-18 third quarter to establish a lead they would not relinquish.

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