It’s been said countless times now: Canada has more talent than anyone else in Victoria.
The question was always whether that collection of talent could find an identity in time to win a four-game Olympic qualifying tournament.
After an opening 97-91 win over Greece, that identity has already come into focus: wreak havoc on defence to fuel transition offence, and let the talent shine through.
“I thought we’d be fairly versatile. After seeing that I see some more opportunities for some versatility with who we can play at different positions,” head coach Nick Nurse said after the game.
“I thought we had a pretty good defensive half [in] the second half. So again, being versatile on defence means you can change schemes and change matchups and execute them.”
After a slow first half, in which a porous defence allowed a typically poor-shooting Greek team to catch fire from beyond the arc, Nurse unlocked Canada with a pair of second-half adjustments.
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On defence, Canada began switching on every ball-screen, negating Greece’s previously dominant pick-and-roll game. Nurse also opted for a smaller look, with the six-foot-three Luguentz Dort often playing over six-foot-nine starter Trey Lyles.
WATCH | Canada comes from behind to beat Greece:
The changes led to a faster pace of play, with Canada forcing more turnovers defensively to open up its transition game.
“If you let them get out in the open court, if you let them get downhill off the bounce, you’re going to have a tough time beating them,” Greece head coach Rick Pitino said after the game.
Canada finished the game with 19 points off of 22 Greece turnovers, and 17 fast-break points. A 35-31 rebounding advantage over the bigger Greeks also helped Canada fuel its offence.
His energy left RJ Barrett, who scored 22 points in the win, impressed.
“That’s really what he does all game long every time he comes in. He brings the energy, he plays defence, he’s running in transition, he’s moving the ball. So he’s definitely a key guy for us and a guy that you can always count on,” Barrett said.
Dort finished plus-four in the six-point win, while Lyles was a team-worst minus-four.
Canada’s next game is against China on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET. It would not be surprising to see Dort start in place of Lyles, especially considering China likes to run the ball similarly to Canada.
Talent takes over
But when it mattered most, Barrett and Andrew Wiggins were able to get buckets nearly at will, with Wiggins hitting a pair of tough mid-range jumpers in the final minutes to put a bow on his game-high 23-point performance.
RJ 👏 BARRETT 👏<br><br>🇬🇷 76 – 83 🇨🇦<a href=”https://twitter.com/CanBball?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Canbball</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/FIBAOQT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#FIBAOQT</a><br>WATCH: <a href=”https://t.co/EpFTk4KNq8″>https://t.co/EpFTk4KNq8</a> <a href=”https://t.co/5L10JaUmIU”>pic.twitter.com/5L10JaUmIU</a>
As much as chemistry is important in FIBA, talent can still win out.
“They did a great job. Part of the learning experience is, ‘Can we get the ball where it needs to go late?’ I know it didn’t look like much, but there was some pretty important organization there in getting the shots up, in getting the spacing right and getting these two guys involved,” Nurse said.
“So, pretty good for a first game. It’s definitely nice having two guys who can score like that.”
The star duo also highlighted what may be Canada’s biggest weakness in Victoria: lack of cohesion in the halfcourt.
Canada coughed up the ball 17 times, including six from Wiggins alone. Barrett, meanwhile, allowed himself to be stripped with 15 seconds remaining and Nurse yelling at him to “hold it.” The turnover handed the ball back to Greece with Canada clinging to its six-point lead, though Greece failed to capitalize.
Sets up successful tournament
But that should improve as the tournament progresses and the team, playing its first game together, gains more reps alongside one another and within Nurse’s system.
“We’ve got a ‘We’ve come a long way but we’ve got a long ways to go mentality.’ We’ve accomplished some things but certainly got a lot of things to correct and I think we’ve got the guys that can do it,” Nurse said.
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Stabilizing the talent were two Canadian cogs: point guard Cory Joseph and forward Dwight Powell. The duo combined for perfect 5/5 shooting, with Joseph adding six assists and Powell contributing seven rebounds.
From a wider standpoint, it was critical that Canada work through its warts to beat Greece. A win over China on Wednesday would now clinch the group, and help Canada avoid Group B favourite Turkey until the final of the winner-takes-all tournament.
The pressure is lower now. Beating China is still crucial, but Canada knows who it is.
It won’t outmuscle you, but it’ll use its athleticism to quicken the pace of the game, and it will rely on pure talent when needed.
That identity will be key when the games begin to matter more — in Victoria, and potentially in Tokyo too.