In trouncing China, Canada displays chemistry required to win on international stage

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·5 min read
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Canada's Nickeil Alexander-Walker (4) celebrates with teammates following their 109-79 win over China at the last-chance Olympic basketball qualifier on Wednesday in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's Nickeil Alexander-Walker (4) celebrates with teammates following their 109-79 win over China at the last-chance Olympic basketball qualifier on Wednesday in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A first-quarter three-pointer gave Canada the lead over China on Wednesday, showing how the team can punch its ticket to Tokyo.

Luguentz Dort came up with a loose ball under his own basket, and turned to run the floor the other way. He found Mychal Mulder on the right wing, who drove to the basket before kicking to RJ Barrett in the opposite corner. Barrett quickly swung it to Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who drilled the triple.

That put Canada ahead 20-17, sparking a 12-2 run in what was ultimately a dominant 109-79 win over China. Canada clinched Group A with the victory, and will meet the second-place finisher in Group B in one of Saturday's semifinals. Only the tournament champion reaches the Olympics.

"I thought our guys did a pretty professional job tonight. Very good learning experience for us. We saw a lot of different defences, a few different presses, a few different zones and a lot of zones," head coach Nick Nurse said after the game.

"We're fairly new to each other, so it was good for us to get some experience with that."

The cohesion that led to Alexander-Walker's three-pointer will be crucial if Nurse's team plans to win out in Victoria.

Against a weaker defence than it faced in the opener against Greece, Canada flexed its depth. All 12 players saw the floor, with 11 putting points on the board.

Canada assisted on 30 of its 36 field goals, leading to a 40 per cent three-point shooting mark and 43 per cent overall.

Though it was once again Andrew Wiggins leading Canada with 20 points, his impact wasn't as large, or as vital, as in Tuesday's game.

"We're still learning together, it's a new squad. But every game we're getting better. Every moment we're on the court together, the chemistry is building, we're getting more comfortable and hopefully we keep it going," Wiggins said.

With Turkey's win over the Czech Republic, Canada will meet the winner of Thursday's Czech-Uruguay matchup in the semifinals.

Besides Wiggins, six other players scored in double figures for Canada against China, including Barrett (16), Andrew Nicholson (14), Dwight Powell (12), Dort (11), Alexander-Walker (11) and Trey Lyles (11).

WATCH | Canada routs China to reach semis:

The last time Canada made the Olympics was 2000, when current general manager Rowan Barrett was captain and Steve Nash guided the team to a stunning 4-1 round-robin record, only to fall to France in the quarters.

Barrett recently said the key to that team's success was trust in each other.

"In the greatest sense of what a team can be, that team was it. No 'me, me' stuff. No I in team, right? One game, one guy high scored. The next game, another guy high scores. It didn't matter. Win together."

On Wednesday, it was evident the 2021 Canadian team was built in Barrett's vision.

The team often looked to make the extra pass, beginning with Barrett's son RJ, who had three first-quarter assists to match his average from the past NBA season with the New York Knicks. Barrett wound up with five for the game.

'Sky is the limit'

It was a balanced attack, with nice moments from every player — a Lyles turnaround three-pointer here, a Dort putback dunk there, a tricky Trae Bell-Haynes floater for Canada's third-last basket of the night.

"When you play together, the game comes easy. Everyone's in a good rhythm, everyone's going to get after it offensively, defensively. We have a lot of unselfish guys. We all want to see each other win, do good, and out there we're just trying to play aggressive, play to win, play the right way," Wiggins said.

"And I feel like if we keep playing that way, keep playing together, then the sky is the limit for us."

The FIBA game is just 40 minutes, with minimal timeouts and no commercial breaks. It's tougher to rely on one player than it is in the NBA, when natural stoppages help players catch their breath.

Even if China didn't meet the standard of opponent that Canada will face moving forward in Victoria and potentially Tokyo, it's important for players to build trust in each other now for when things aren't as easy later.

It remains unclear who makes up Canada's best five. Lyles began the game forcing jumpers when kickouts were available. Dort continued to look good in his role, while Andrew Nicholson provided scoring punch off the bench.

Wiggins, Barrett, Cory Joseph and Dwight Powell appear locked in to starting roles. It'll be between Lyles, Dort and Nicholson for the final spot, with in-game performance likely determining who closes.

In international basketball, it's on the coach to ride the hot hand, and the players to keep that roll going.

On Wednesday, the hot hand was contagious.

"At the end of the day, it's basketball. We have a lot of guys on this team that can put the ball in the hoop, that can play at a high level, that do play at a high level. So when they're making shots, it makes the game easier for everybody," Wiggins said.

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