The stakes are high for the Canadian men’s basketball team.
Canada’s hope is to clinch an Olympic berth for Paris 2024 and participate in the Games for the first time since 2000 at this men’s basketball World Cup. But a Friday loss to Brazil in the opening game of the second round has left the talented Canadian squad in a delicate situation.
The 69-65 defeat, which followed a promising start in group play that saw Canada breeze past France, Lebanon and Latvia, means the squad now faces a must-win match against the reigning champion Spain at 9:30 a.m. ET on Sunday in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Repeating the victory over Spain in exhibition play in mid-August to improve to 4-1 will reward the Canadians with a quarterfinals spot.
A loss will mark the end of the road for the team led by head coach Jordi Fernandez while also possibly sending Canada to a last-chance qualifying tournament in order to make the Olympics.
“We haven’t faced anything like this and I believe in our guys that they’re gonna work. They care,” Fernandez said after the tight defeat to Brazil. “We’re going to watch film and we’re going to prepare for Spain.”
Fernandez, who also serves as an associate head coach with the Sacramento Kings, was once part of the Spanish program as an assistant coach with county’s men’s under-19 team.
The 40-year-old, who’s enjoying his first major tournament as Canada’s head coach after being hired in late June to replace Nick Nurse, also said Canada didn’t deserve to win on Friday. Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander agreed.
“They wanted it a little more. Especially with the rebounding, that really hurt us,” said the Oklahoma City Thunder guard. “We lose, we learn from it. On to the next one.”
‘Right group of guys’
Gilgeous-Alexander has established himself as a standout in the tournament so far, leading Canada in points-per-game with 22.3, placing sixth overall in the competition.
The 25-year-old Hamilton, Ont., native is also Canada’s top player in rebounds (7.3) and assists (4.8).
“We’ve all played a lot of games and we’ve all been in those types of situations where we really need a win to achieve our goals,” said Luguentz Dort, who also plays for the Thunder and is averaging 12 points and five rebounds for Canada.
“We’ve got to have a short memory. Spain is a good team, we’ve played them already [in exhibition]. We’ve got to regroup, watch film. We have bigger goals and we have the right group of guys for that. We’ll all lock in and do it game by game. We’ll be ready for the next game.”
WATCH l Canada falters in 4th quarter during loss to Brazil:
Former Canadian men’s basketball coach Jay Triano expresses his thoughts on the Canadian Men’s basketball team. He believes the team has the squad to go far at the FIBA World Cup and qualify for the Olympics.
Canada will also look to rely on the skill and physicality of the Dallas Mavericks’ Dwight Powell and Kelly Olynyk of the Utah Jazz, along with the defensive work of Houston Rockets’ Dillon Brooks.
The two teams from the Americas with the best finishes at the World Cup will automatically qualify for Paris. Other than Canada, the U.S., Puerto Rico and Brazil are still alive and take the court on Sunday with hopes of making the quarterfinals.
Spain also has a 3-1 record having beaten Ivory Coast, Brazil and Iran before falling to Latvia on Friday to see their 11-game win streak in the competition snapped.
Missing reigning MVP and veteran Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Ricky Rubio, who’s taking a break from basketball to focus on his mental health, is a big blow for the 2022 FIBA EuroBasket winners.
But the internationally-experienced Spanish squad possesses talent in the likes of former Toronto Raptors forward Juancho Hernangómez, his brother and EuroBasket MVP Willy, Usman Garuba, who last played for the Houston Rockets, and Santiago Aldama of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Falling to Canada would not only be a disappointing end to Spain’s title defence, but would also represent the nation’s first back-to-back loss in the FIBA World Cup since 1990.
Head coach Sergio Scariolo is one of the reasons Spain can feel confident ahead of the do-or-die clash.
WATCH | Ex-coach Triano confident in 2023 Team Canada:
Canada falters in the 4th quarter and is defeated 69-65 by Brazil at the basketball world cup in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The 62-year-old from Brescia, Italy, has collected the London 2012 silver and the Rio 2016 bronze honours during his two spells with Spain to go along with the gold medal in the 2019 FIBA World Cup and his four EuroBasket titles.
Scariolo believes Canada poses a solid challenge, and it’s not shy to praise the dynamic, versatile and exciting Canadian squad.
“This is a team that’s probably above us. Physicality, athleticism, NBA experience,” Scariolo said. “What is in your hands is do your best. And if your best is not enough, you shake their hands and wish them good luck for the rest of the championship.”
Scariolo’s Canadian connection
One of the best moments in Scariolo’s career came with the Raptors, as he debuted as an assistant head coach in Toronto’s 2018-2019 championship-winning season before leaving in 2021.
“The connection is huge,” Scariolo said to Eurohoops about his time in Canada. “Canada [has] a very huge place in my heart. I had amazing years there, let alone winning a championship.”
When the ball is tipped off, everything will be on the line for both teams.
“We are in the same hotel. We played in tournaments. We spend many days together. Their coach is a friend of mine. Their assistant coach is a friend of mine,” Scariolo said.
“Of course, this is a game we want to win and a game they want to win. They are very good and we’ll try to be as good as them to compete.”