VICTORIA – Late in the first quarter, the Canadian men’s national team was working the clock in their last possession against Argentina.
As the crowd in the nearly sold-out Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre watched and the seconds ticked, Kelly Olynyk signalled to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, asking him if he wanted him to come up and set a ball screen to free him up.
The Oklahoma City Thunder guard shook his head: not necessary. Instead, he broke down his defender and slithered his way into the paint, gathering Argentinean defenders as he went, and at the right moment fired a bullet to Kevin Pangos, who took a sidestep dribble before cashing a wide-open three.
The Canadian men’s national team’s path to where they want to go – challenging for podiums at the World Cup and competing for medals at the Olympics – is hardly an easy one. So many things have to go right.
But when Gilgeous-Alexander has the ball in his hands, changing speeds like prime Pedro Martinez, it gets a lot easier.
“They’re a very, very good team,” one member of the Canadian coaching staff said before the game as Argentina was warming up. “But they have to guard us too. Shai can get to the paint against anyone. Anyone.”
He did it against Argentina and it was perhaps the principal reason Canada was able to pull off an impressive 99-77 win over highly regarded Argentina.
The 24-year-old did so over and over again against Argentina on Thursday night, and made life even more difficult for defenders by showing the ability to step out and make some threes too. All in all, it was another brilliant outing for Gilgeous-Alexander who has been dominant in all three starts this summer – his first three with the senior national team.
It’s the kind of point guard play Canada hasn’t seen since Victoria’s Steve Nash was wearing No. 7 for the red-and-white, and makes one dream of what Canada will look like when the likes of Jamal Murray and RJ Barrett are in the fold as well.
Until then, Gilgeous-Alexander looks capable of carrying a heavy load as he finished with 23 points and eight assists while going 3-of-6 from deep. He was aided by Olynyk, who added 21 points and eight rebounds, while Dwight Powell chipped in 12 points and seven boards.
Canada shot 50 per cent from the floor and was 12-of-29 from three with a 17-10 edge in turnovers on the night.
Canada entered the game with a perfect 6-0 record in the first stage of qualifying for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup and the best point differential among the 12 teams in the Americas that advanced to the second stage in pursuit of the seven spots available. But Argentina was 5-1 and dripping with the kind of international pedigree Canada can only aspire to at this stage.
Argentina, ranked seventh in the world, brought nine of the 12 players from the team that advanced to the quarter-finals of the Olympics last summer, and eight from the team that won silver at the World Cup in 2019.
It wasn’t a do-or-die game, by any stretch. Barring something unimaginable both teams will advance to the World Cup next summer. But for Canada it had a proof-of-concept feel. For all the efforts being made to elevate the program to where its collective talent suggests it should be, wins against quality opponents matter.
But Canada had the proper amount of respect, too.
“I mean, this is a very experienced team; it’s one of the top teams in the world,” said head coach Nick Nurse before the game. “Most of their team plays this style their whole careers, and this team of guys have played a lot together.
“So those are the challenges you know, when we get in these kinds of games that we know we’re facing, we’re facing chemistry and we’re facing experience. How do you combat that? Well, we got to go guard them. Like we got to go guard and we got to just be there and give extra efforts. And keep making plays; finish off possessions and we got to play really hard.”
In the first half, Canada couldn’t have followed the script any better. While Gilgeous-Alexander was getting into the paint at will, his teammates were taking advantage. Pangos came off the bench and hit a three; Kassius Robertson hit two. Meanwhile Olynyk – the multi-skilled big man from Kelowna, B.C., – was doing his part as well: punishing smaller defenders on switches or putting the ball on the floor and pounding his way to the paint against over-matched bigs.
Canada was up 28-21 after the first quarter and depth players kept up the momentum for most of the second quarter as Cory Joseph, Pangos, Phil and Thomas Scrubb and veteran Melvin Ejim all made plays. And no matter who was on the floor, they all bought in on the defensive end.
“We’ve very disruptive, defensively,” was Gilgeous-Alexander’s pre-game scouting report on Canada’s strengths.
They certainly played that way as they finished the half with a significant edge in turnovers which they routinely turned into offence. Argentina had its moments – Nicolas Laprovittola finished the half with 21 of his game-high 30 points and his three late in the second quarter was part of a quick 6-0 spurt that cut what had been a 16-point lead to 10. But Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t having that. He stepped into a three of his own and when Olynyk was fouled in transition and made a pair of free throws, Canada was able to take a 52-39 lead into the half.
They didn’t rest to start the third, going on a 13-4 run to start the half bolstered by a triple from Nickeil Alexander-Walker – who was in foul trouble most of the game and fouled out later in the third quarter – followed by one from his cousin, Gilgeous-Alexander, to put Canada up by 22 four minutes into the period.
As was the case in the first half, Nurse was able to go to his bench without missing a beat. A three by Thomas Scrubb set up by Joseph kept the lead at 20 with 2:13 to play before Argentina trimmed the lead to 83-68 to start the fourth quarter.
Canada was able to hold on from there, weathering a late Argentina flurry that was doused when Gilgeous-Alexander found Olynyk for a late lay-up in transition.
Canada’s next step is to travel to Panama City, Panama to take on – yes, Panama – on Monday. The task will be a little more difficult because Gilgeous-Alexander has been shut down by the Thunder in the wake of the season-ending foot injury that rookie Chet Holmgren suffered in a pro-am game recently. Alexander-Walker will also miss the game while undergoing surgery to remove his wisdom teeth.
But progress is being made, and it was evident against Argentina.