Tiny margin between Olympics and heartbreak exposed again for Canadian men's basketball

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·5 min read
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Canada's Luguentz Dort, right, tries to block Czech Republic's Blake Schilb during the first half of Canada's 103-101 overtime loss in the semifinals of the Olympic qualifying tournament on Saturday in Victoria, B.C. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's Luguentz Dort, right, tries to block Czech Republic's Blake Schilb during the first half of Canada's 103-101 overtime loss in the semifinals of the Olympic qualifying tournament on Saturday in Victoria, B.C. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)

It was all lined up for Canada's men's basketball team to reach its first Olympics since 2000.

Eight NBA players, more than every other team at the last-chance qualifier in Victoria combined. A championship-calibre head coach. The floor on which the Raptors won the 2019 title. Home court, equipped with 720 fans.

Instead, it's disappointment once again after being knocked out with a 103-101 overtime loss in the semifinals against the Czech Republic. There will be no Tokyo 2020 for the Canadian men's basketball team.

"I'm very disappointed for these guys. They committed and we worked super hard and we prepared hard and they played their guts out. When you do all that you want them to be rewarded for it," head coach Nick Nurse said after the game.

WATCH | Canada ousted by Czech Republic at Olympic qualifier:

Canada staged an absurd 10-point comeback in the final minute, capped by a game-tying three-pointer from Andrew Wiggins.

A game controlled by the Czechs for 39 minutes was suddenly in OT, and Canada raced to a five-point lead. But its opponent answered with a 7-0 run before another Wiggins jumper tied the game with less than 20 seconds remaining.

Czech star Tomas Satoransky then banked a shot in over Luguentz Dort, a wide-open Trey Lyles jumper for Canada rimmed out, and that was it.

Another loss for the Canadian men's basketball team. The Olympic dream dead. Another reminder of just how small the margins are on the international stage.

"It just didn't bounce our way tonight," said Nurse. "And that happens. But extremely proud of the players who committed and the effort that they gave and it was a tremendous learning experience for our organization."

The loss will linger for the next three years ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics, similar to the stunning 2015 loss to Venezuela and the defeat to France a year later, either of which would have sent the Canadian men to Rio.

On Saturday, there was plenty that could explain the latest heartbreak. Some was expected: the Czech size was too much for Canada's smaller frontcourt; its experience shone through and the referees were inconsistent.

Others were unexpected: A sudden three-point-shooting drought; an unsportsmanlike foul on Lyles leading to four Czech free throws and the ball. But none matched Satoransky's dagger.

"I asked him if he called bank on it," said Blake Schilb, the 37-year-old who led the Czech Republic with a whopping 31 points.

"He said, 'No, I called game on it'."

Missing players a factor

Forward Andrew Nicholson said the locker room was understandably dispirited after the game.

"Cory [Joseph] actually made a nice speech to us. The future's bright, we just need to stay together and it's just sometimes how the ball game goes. We're just going to stay positive and look forward to our next opportunity as a basketball team."

Canada boasts the second-most NBA players in the world, with the talent to suggest it should compete for the podium at each and every Olympics.

But following a tournament in which the conversation finally seemed to turn from who wasn't there to who was, it's hard not to think about some of those missing pieces.

Canada's best two NBA players, Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, were both injured. Program stalwarts Kelly Olynyk and Khem Birch backed out while facing NBA free agency. It was unclear why Dillon Brooks, a standout for the Memphis Grizzlies, didn't join Team Canada after being included on the initial 24-man roster.

Immediately that's a potential starting five out of commission, one that may have carried enough talent to negate some of the issues Canada faced on Saturday.

"I think that if we can get a group of guys to stick together for some years, that always helps. I think case in point is tonight," Nurse said.

RJ Barrett was impressive throughout the tournament and Wiggins hits those ridiculously clutch buckets late.

But Canada lacked both the size and experience to compete with a massive Czech team with plenty of reps together.

"It was ultra, ultra physical out there. The screening and those kind of things, but that's the style. I kinda wish we would have maybe been able to execute a little more at the offensive end," Nurse said.

The Czechs ultimately outrebounded Canada 40-28. On defence, they played physically, daring the referees to call fouls.

Canada shot nine more free throws than the Czechs, but was continuously left with mouths agape at some of the touch fouls called on them, especially compared to the punishing Czech game.

And sometimes basketball is just a make-or-miss game. Canada shot 24 per cent from beyond the arc; the Czech Republic was 46 per cent.

"You can just look at the last two plays. They made a bank shot and ours went in and out and that's the deciding factor," Nurse said.

Uncertain future

For his part, Nurse wouldn't commit to sticking with Canada Basketball through 2024, though he sounded positive in praising the program and spouting his love of coaching.

Also Saturday, the U-19 team won its first-ever game against Lithuania after erasing a 14-point deficit. A Barrett-led version of that team won gold in 2017, and Canada owns top-10 prospects in each of the next three NBA drafts.

With so much talent in the NBA, there will always be missing players. The key is to stack depth to ensure those losses aren't fatal. In that regard, Canada is well on its way.

But it's been like that since 2015, at least. The learning was supposed to be over — it was time to execute.

By 2024, Canada either needs a group with international experience together, or talent so overwhelming it doesn't matter.

In Victoria, Canada found itself in a 50-50 game against a Czech Republic team with just one NBA player.

And in one thud of the backboard, the tiny margin between the Olympics and heartbreak was laid bare once again.

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