So, what does the Canadian men’s basketball team get for a reward after one of the biggest victories in the history of the program?
Only a date with perhaps the best scorer on the planet, Luka Doncic and his Slovenian teammates on Wednesday in Manila (8:30 a.m. ET).
Canada stormed back to upset defending World Cup and EuroBasket champion Spain on Sunday to both advance to the quarter-finals of this World Cup, and qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, Canada’s first trip to the quadrennial sporting pinnacle since 2000.
For years in the wake of Steve Nash’s retirement from the program it felt like Canada Basketball’s men’s group was cursed. The women consistently excelled, but the men failed to make headway, similar to how things went on the soccer front.
First, the marquee players wouldn’t show up to play, or they’d scratch and claw to convince one or two NBAers to join. It was only four years ago that Canada even claimed its first victory at a World Cup in 17 years.
And when formidable squads were actually built, there were devastating buzzer-beating losses in Mexico City in 2015 and in Victoria in 2021 that extended the drought.
But that is all finally history. Now, we’ll see just how much of a stepping-stone Sunday’s win really was. As team leader Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said afterward, only half of this summer’s job has been completed. There will be time to look ahead to Paris, but more immediately, the second part of the team’s goal remains attainable.
Many believe the World Cup is actually a tougher tournament than the more prestigious Olympic competition. This event has more participants and more teams of a higher calibre, given how stringent Olympic qualification can be in consistently knocking out some of the world powers (like Spain and Argentina, both Top 4 in the rankings, currently out of the mix for 2024, Lithuania in 2020 and Canada for several cycles now).
A win over Slovenia would put Canada in range of a podium finish and likely a huge leap from No. 15 in the FIBA rankings. Lithuania or Serbia would await on Friday, with a win there setting up a likely clash with the United States in Sunday’s final.
But before all of that, there’s the Doncic matter.
The 6-foot-7 Slovenian, just 24, has already been voted one of the NBA’s best players four times (by making the All-NBA first team) and just averaged 32.4 points per game for the Dallas Mavericks, second only to league MVP Joel Embiid. He’s mastered the international game, too, having played in Spain and for Slovenia at various events since he was a teenager. His 26.4 points per game at the FIBA World Cup lead all players, and he was second in scoring at the 2020 Olympics.
He’s a handful like few other players and his brilliance presents a far different challenge for Canada’s defence compared to the well-oiled offence of pass-happy Spain. Doncic can’t be easily stopped 1-on-1 and is also a sublime passer, but only two of his teammates have shot the ball well from three-point range, with Doncic and Zoran Dragic (brother of ex-Raptor Goran Dragic) each shooting a poor 24% so far.
Doncic’s 2-for-11 shooting from beyond the arc during a blowout loss to Germany and his six turnovers a game earlier against Australia are concerns for Slovenia, as is the lingering ailment he is playing through. Doncic reaggravated the “old injury” that bothered him during the NBA season during an exhibition game three weeks ago.
While the 2017 EuroBasket champions and fourth-place finishers in Tokyo are always dangerous, if Doncic is less than 100%, Canada has an advantage, seeing as Gilgeous-Alexander also made first team All-NBA and has nearly been Doncic’s equal so far at the tournament. Canada also has rugged defenders Dillon Brooks and Lu Dort to get physical with Doncic and has an athleticism advantage over Slovenia.
Slovenia should be better than it showed against Germany (particularly big man Mike Tobey, who was poor), but if Canada can get out and run, avoid foul trouble and hit some shots, they’ll be in good shape. Slovenia fouls a lot and doesn’t guard the rim well so should be susceptible defensively.
Plus all the pressure is now off Canada as they return to the stage for an encore.