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What we learned about the Canadian men’s Olympic basketball team in their debut

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What we learned about the Canadian men’s Olympic basketball team in their debut

LAS VEGAS — A staffer in a red Canada Basketball shirt chased down a rebound as a chunk of players were taking their pregame shots. He ran to the sideline and saw a familiar face.

The staffer and Nick Nurse exchanged a handshake that turned into a hug.

“We thought this might happen five years ago, right?” Nurse said.

Yep, it was five years ago, plus a few weeks, since Canada Basketball named Nurse head coach of the men’s senior team before the 2019 World Cup. And it was about a year ago that Nurse resigned from the position, following his exile from the Toronto Raptors, and joined the Philadelphia 76ers. An hour before Canada’s men’s team played the United States’ latest (Rhyming Word To Be Named Later) Team, Nurse was chatting with his old Raptors assistant and Team Canada assistant Nate Bjorkgren and, then, his replacement — Jordi Fernández.

That 2019 team was short on talent. It was an underdog to get out of its group, let alone medal. The point stands, though: Since longer than Nurse’s time in the program, Canada has been dreaming of a best-on-best matchup against the United States. Wednesday was the first pre-Olympics tune-up for both teams, but it was also a moment Canadian basketball fans have been thinking about since Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph entered the NBA as first-round draft picks in 2011. Canadians have come pouring into the NBA since then, but after failing to qualify for the Olympics in 2012, 2016 and 2020, they are finally heading to the tournament.

“When I got my first bucket, I’m like, ‘Damn, it’s been a minute since I had this jersey on,’” said Jamal Murray, who hadn’t played for Canada since 2015 at the Pan-Am Games. “So, also the jitters were there for sure. … We’re all getting used to building that kind of chemistry. Definitely a special moment. I’ll shoot better next time.”

Indeed, the 86-72 loss wasn’t what fans dreamed of, but it is a useful starting point for the run-up to France. Here is what we learned in the team’s first 40 minutes.

Shai the point guard

It was not a surprise that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray started together. The star guards, along with Dillon Brooks, are the three sure starters for this team.

Early in training camp in Toronto, Gilgeous-Alexander described the rapport between the two stars simply: He would drive and Murray would shoot. That equated to Gilgeous-Alexander dominating the ball, with Murray operating more off the ball. Gilgeous-Alexander said he is trying to become more of an off-ball threat, but there wasn’t much of that on Wednesday.

Life wasn’t easy for Gilgeous-Alexander in the paint, as the United States started Joel Embiid, and then brought Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo off the bench. Silly stuff, rim protection-wise.

“We play against those guys every other day in the league,” Murray said. “It wasn’t about who they got. Obviously, Joel is a big dude. AD is a big dude. Bam is a big dude and he can move. Other than that, nothing we haven’t seen before.”

“Other than that” is doing a lot of work there.

Murray had a rough night, too. The guards combined to shoot 5-for-18. Both guards had moments of forcing things, and you cannot let the Americans run.

“They switched a lot,” Fernández said, “and we just stared at the switch the whole time.”

A point of emphasis when the team gets to France, surely. Gilgeous-Alexander, Murray and everyone else have to adjust.

Dillon the Villain

Of course, Dillon Brooks started on LeBron James. It had to be done. One of the league’s best agitators, a guy who has had no problem talking trash to James and Steph Curry in the NBA, was going to show the Americans that Canada was not scared. A helpful note to strike should the two teams meet in an elimination game in France.

After an early American turnover, Brooks stayed close to James, who gave him two light shoves. James got him later, cutting behind Brooks for a dunk. Brooks was on the short list of best Canadians on the evening.

The Las Vegas crowd booed Brooks when the starting lineups were introduced, and all through the evening. Let’s hope, assuming Canada qualifies again, Brooks is still around for Los Angeles in 2028. If so, Brooks should carry the flag at the opening ceremony.

“Yeah, it’s normal. They know who I am,” Brooks said. “They want to boo me”

Dwight Powell started up front for Canada, a minor surprise. However, watching him battle against Embiid, the reason became clear.

Powell is just a strong dude. Embiid picked up an offensive foul in the second quarter as he tried to establish post position. Embiid later hit Powell with a forearm that was reviewed. “He’s flopping,” a frustrated Embiid said to the official. It was ruled an unsportsmanlike foul upon review. Embiid fouled out moments later.

“He didn’t think he (hit me in the face),” Powell said. “But it’s all good in competition. We spoke after the game. It’s all good. At the international level especially, there could be moments like that. But you’re competing for your country, so you understand there are high emotions.”

Powell doesn’t give up anything defensively, and gets right into the next action offensively. The downside is that teams will leave Powell open on the perimeter, but the starters should have the spacing to absorb that.

Fernández is also probably hoping Kelly Olynyk can help the second unit get some easier looks. About that …

Second unit struggles

Fernández was never going to run his best players too hard in this game. He has already spoken about needing to be lighter with their minutes in the Olympics to keep them fresh, so exhibition games won’t be heavy workloads. No Canadian played more than Gilgeous-Alexander, who logged 19.

With that in mind, Canada didn’t score until nearly three minutes into the second quarter, with a high-low pass from Olynyk to Trey Lyles. Guards Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Andrew Nembhard had difficulty creating enough separation against the athletic Americans.

“I just did not like the way we played, regardless of the score,” Fernández said. “That’s not who we are, how we want to play, who we want to be. … It’s not about the win or the loss, it’s the way we played.”

In games that matter, I would be surprised if Fernández goes with lineups without at least one of his star guards too often. Nembhard and Alexander-Walker are nice players, but they cannot reliably create against the best perimeter defenders in the world (Jrue Holiday ate up Murray a few times, too).

The last spots were about two things

Namely, the last spots on this roster were about general manager Rowan Barrett and Fernández getting as much versatility and experience onto the roster, which was finalized on Wednesday morning, as possible. Melvin Ejim and Khem Birch, the two non-NBA players on the team, will likely not be in the rotation regularly. Birch is the fourth big, while Ejim is an extra wing.

The three final cuts, Phil Scrubb, Thomas Scrubb and Mifondu Kabengale, will travel with Canada for pre-tournament games and be available to make the roster if another player is injured. (Thomas Scrubb scored with a hook shot over LeBron James late in the game, which had to be a cool career moment on a disappointing day.) Barrett was clear that Ejim, who has likely played for the senior national team more than any other player on the roster, Olynyk perhaps excluded, is an essential piece for the team.

“There are a number of our players (who) really look up to him as a bigger brother,” Barrett said Wednesday morning. “He provides calm. … Sometimes you need a teammate that grabs you by the jersey and says, ‘Hey, we’re all right, we’re all right. Get your head together. You’re going back in.’”

Meanwhile, Zach Edey pulling out of training camp meant Canada needed another big. Kabengale is huge and was intriguing just for that aspect. With Olynyk, Powell and Lyles up front, Canada will be smaller than lots of their opponents. But Birch, if healthy, is a bit nimbler, and he is plenty strong, despite giving up a few inches to Kabengele.

(Photo of Dillon Brooks and LeBron James: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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