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Canadians could make some noise in the NBA post-season | CBC Sports

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This summer in Paris, the Canadian men’s basketball team will make its first Olympic appearance since 2000, when future two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash carried the team to the quarterfinals in Sydney.

But first, some of the players hoping to lead Canada to its first Olympic basketball medal in 88 years enter the gauntlet of the NBA post-season. That begins tonight as the play-in tournament for the final two spots in each conference tips off.

Here’s how the play-in tournament works: While the top six finishers in each conference rest up for the first round of the playoffs proper, the teams that placed seventh through 10th compete for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in a series of elimination games over the next few days. The seventh- and eighth-place teams square off, with the winner advancing directly to the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. The loser can still get the No. 8 seed by beating the survivor of the ninth vs. 10th matchup.

The first round of the Western Conference play-ins takes place tonight, with seventh-place New Orleans hosting the eighth-place Los Angeles Lakers while No. 9 Sacramento hosts No. 10 Golden State. The East play-ins begin tomorrow night with seventh-place Philadelphia hosting eighth-place Miami and No. 9 Chicago hosting No. 10 Atlanta.

The final round for both conferences is on Friday night, followed by the start of the main 16-team playoff bracket on Saturday.

Here’s a look at the top Canadian players to watch in the post-season:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort (Oklahoma City Thunder)

SGA keeps getting better and better. Last season, the former 11th-overall draft pick placed fifth in MVP voting and fourth in scoring with a career-high 31.4 points per game (most ever by a Canadian) to help rebuilding OKC reach the play-in. After turning 25 in July, he led the Canadian men’s national team to its first Olympic berth in a quarter century and its first major medal since 1936 with a bronze at the World Cup. Most basketball experts agreed the superb two-way guard was the best all-around player in a tournament that included current NBA scoring champion Luka Doncic.

This season, Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring average dipped slightly to 30.1 points. But that ranked third in the league this time, and he played fewer minutes per game than last season. SGA also improved his shooting efficiency while posting career highs in assists (6.2) and steals (2.0) with fewer turnovers. With second-year sidekick Jalen Williams also improving and 7-foot forward Chet Holmgren showing he was worth the No. 2 overall pick after missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury, the young Thunder jumped all the way to the top of the Western Conference, going 57-25 to grab the top seed from defending NBA champion Denver.

OKC features another key young Canadian guard in Dort, a tireless 24-year-old who supplies hard-nosed perimeter defence and a bit of scoring while often guarding the other team’s best player. Dort’s versatility and physical strength has allowed coach Mark Daigneault to deploy him against stars ranging from bulky Zion Williamson to sinewy Kevin Durant and seemingly anyone in between.

Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets)

Many Canadian basketball fans were dismayed when Murray skipped last summer’s crucial World Cup after helping Denver to the NBA championship as Nikola Jokic’s main sidekick. Murray, then 26, was coming off a long playoff run in which he averaged a stellar 26 points and seven assists in 20 games, and it was his first season back from a devastating knee injury that sidelined him for the entire previous season. But Canadians still hoped he’d fulfill his commitment to the national team as it chased an Olympic berth.

Canada got in, but Murray’s participation in Paris is no sure thing after he missed 23 regular-season games due to knee, shin and ankle issues. He still hit career highs in points (21.2) and assists (6.5) while shooting more efficiently than ever, and Jokic is poised for his third MVP award in four years after Denver finished second in the Western Conference. But the Nuggets may have made their playoff path tougher by blowing their penultimate game to second-last-place San Antonio (thanks to 34 points by super Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama), handing the top seed to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s Thunder.

A backcourt of Murray and SGA would give Canada an excellent chance of winning a medal in Paris. But, in the likely event that the Nuggets go on another deep playoff run (they’re the clear betting favourites to win the West), Murray’s spotty health could keep him out of the Olympics.

Andrew Wiggins (Golden State Warriors)

Speaking of guys we’re not sure will play for Canada, Wiggins has said he’d like to go to the Olympics, but he refused to commit to the national team for the full cycle and did not appear in the World Cup. This season, he ranks fourth on the Warriors in scoring with 13.2 points per game, easily the lowest mark of his career.

Wiggins hasn’t realized the enormous potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. But he eventually found a more suitable role in Golden State and was instrumental to the Warriors’ unexpected championship in 2022. 

The good news for Canadian basketball fans is that Wiggins could have plenty of time to rest. With the Warriors’ four-time championship core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green aging out of contention, Golden State will have to win in Sacramento’s hostile arena tonight or beat either LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ Lakers or Zion Williamson’s Pelicans just to get into the playoffs as an 8 seed. Then they’d face Gilgeous-Alexander’s rising young Oklahoma City team in the best-of-seven first round.

Honourable mention:

Second-year point guard Andrew Nembhard started 47 games and averaged about nine points and four assists for the Indiana Pacers. The NBA’s highest-scoring team finished sixth in the East and will face the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who could start the series without two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo due to a calf injury.

Indy has another second-year Canadian guard in Bennedict Mathurin, who averaged 14.5 points this season, mostly off the bench. But he had season-ending shoulder surgery last month.

The Pacers also feature Pascal Siakam, who’s near and dear to the hearts of many Canadians for helping the Toronto Raptors win the title in 2019. The Cameroonian forward was acquired in a January trade with Toronto and leads his new team with 21.7 points per game. Former Raptor O.G. Anunoby, another member of the 2019 championship team who was traded this season, is an important starter for the New York Knicks, the No. 2 seed in the East.

Other Olympic men’s basketball news:

Canadian national team head coach Jordi Fernandez is reportedly on the verge of being hired for the same job with the Brooklyn Nets. The 41-year-old Spaniard led Canada to a bronze medal and an Olympic berth at last summer’s Basketball World Cup and is currently the top assistant for the Sacramento Kings.

The United States has reportedly settled on 11 of its 12 roster spots for the Olympics. Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards, Jrue Holiday, Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis will be named to the team, according to ESPN.

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