Here’s five take-aways from Canada’s silver-medal run at the Pan Am Games in Toronto.
NO EXCUSE FOR LOSING FINAL AT HOME
–Canada, currently ranked 25th in the world, has done little on the international stage since 1976-1988 era teams finished between 4 and 6 at the Olympics or FIBA worlds. Pundits rightly praise Canada’s Pan Am performance this year, winning four straight games including a semi-final over USA before losing to Brazil in the final.
While a silver medal seems like a big deal in Toronto, the Pan Am Games were in fact a five-day mini-tournament of mostly B, C or D teams. The USA, for example, didn’t suit up any of their top 100 players and Argentina didn’t have Ginobli, Scola, Nocioni, Prigioni or Delfino.
Canada had all the advantages going into a final they should have won. Most of their guys are from the Toronto area. They had an energy boost from sell-out crowds at Ryerson. Former NBA MVP Steve Nash was feeding balls to them in warm-ups. The table was set for Canada, and they couldn’t finish the job when it mattered most. That doesn’t bode well for Olympic qualifiers in Mexico where Mexico will have all the advantages, and Brazil, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico will bring their A-teams.
Only two teams will qualify for Olympic berths. Canada, opening with world number 3 Argentina, will have to play better under pressure than they did at the Pan Am final.
Jamal Murray, 18, showed composure and swagger on the biggest stage of his career, but he also got repeatedly manhandled on picks and screens on the defensive end, and shot 3 of 12 in the final. Anthony Bennett looked healthy and confident, but you would expect the NBA’s top draft pick to take over a final, and he didn’t. Orlando Magic forward Andrew Nicholson, 25, showed acumen inside, but he fouled out early in the second half of a final when the national spotlight was on him.
CANADA’S STYLE DOESN’T SUCCEED AT FIBA LEVEL
–Canadians look great on highlight films. As Leo Rautins aptly described at the Turkey 2010 worlds, Canada develops players to play one-on-one USA style basketball: breaking your man down, beating him off the dribble, finishing at the rim in spectacular fashion. But teams such as Spain, Argentina, Lithuania and Serbia (currently ranked 2, 3, 4 and 7 in FIBA) succeed by building around team play: intricate passing plays, screens, picks and rolls. Playmakers drive looking for kick-outs to bigs who can shoot from anywhere on the floor. They look effortlessly smooth and cohesive. Canada, meanwhile, often looks disjointed and lacking in direction. Sure, Canada can put five guys on the floor who can beat their man one-on-one, but there’s only one basketball, and basketball is above all else a team sport on both ends of the floor.
CANADA CAN SUCCEED WITH DEPTH, IF THEY USE IT
–While USA players favor NBA play over FIBA, Coach K’s teams succeeded in Beijing, Istanbul, London and Madrid by throwing unmatched depth and athleticism at veteran teams who weren’t allowed to run their offensive sets. At the FIBA U19 in Prague in 2013, teams often had trouble bringing the ball out of the backcourt. At the World Cup in Spain, for example, teams such as Turkey or Serbia could hang with the US for a quarter or two, but eventually ran out of gas and folded under relentless US pressure, often full-court and ending with steals and slams.
A Canadian team with Wiggins, Thompson, Olynyk, Bennett, NIcholson, Joseph, Ennis, Lyles, Stauskas, Murray or others will be the most athletic ever from Canada, and stocked with NBA first-rounders. If these guys are willing to hustle and pressure opponents full-court, Canada coach Jay Triano will have a chance to beat them with athletic talent and depth, USA style. But depth won’t mean anything if Canada doesn’t use it effectively, and they didn’t in the Pan Am Games where they were clearly fatigued in the final.
CANADA MUST SHOOT BETTER
–Shooting wins FIBA. In the 2006 world semis in Saitama, Japan, an unheralded Greece beat a USA team with LeBron, Melo and D-Wade by shooting 62 percent from the field, including 8 of 18 threes. In the 2014 World Cup final, both USA and Serbia made 62 percent of their twos, but USA hit 15 of 30 threes, including an early 6 of 6 barrage from Kyrie Irving. Shooting was the difference. Ditto for Spain and France triumphs at FIBA Eurobaskets.
In the Pan-Am final Saturday, Canada’s shooting was atrocious early. Fatigue from 5 straight games, lack of passing, bad shot selection — it was a highlight reel of guys trying to do too much. Junior Cadougan was 0 for 6 from the floor. Bennett missed all four of his three attempts, and Brady Heslip was 1 of 6. Canada made 5 of 19 and 3 of 16 in the first and second quarters. That won’t beat anybody at a world level.
Unlike previous events, Canada’s team in Mexico should have good shooters available, such as Stauskas and Ennis. Much depends on whether they can fill it up when it matters most. It’s heartening that Canada at least shot 85 percent from the free throw line in Saturday’s final.
DEFENSE IS HALF THE BATTLE
–Offensive prowess means nothing if you can’t get stops at the other end. Interviewed on TV after Saturday’s final, coach Jay Triano talked about Canada’s porous defense. Canada allowed Brazil to penetrate and kick out to wide open shooters, and Canada didn’t close out on shooters or deal with screens and rolls either. In the first quarter, when your defense should be fresh and hungry, Brazil shot 69 percent, including 5 of 7 threes. They finished the game outshooting Canada 53 to 32 percent from the field. Will Canada’s team in Mexico feature any defensive stoppers along the lines of USA players such as Anthony Davis or Andre Igoudala? This is an area where Wiggins, Thompson and Joseph can really step up to make a difference, both outside and inside.