Sports

Olympic heartbreak for Canada's men's basketball team in loss to France

By Ryan Wolstat, Toronto Sun

Tony Parker (C) of France lays-up against Melvin Ejim of Canada during their game at the 2016 FIBA Olympic men's qualifying basketball tournament in Manila on July 10, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBETED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Tony Parker (C) of France lays-up against Melvin Ejim of Canada during their game at the 2016 FIBA Olympic men's qualifying basketball tournament in Manila on July 10, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBETED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Canada’s men’s basketball Olympic drought will stretch to at least 20 years thanks to an 83-74 loss to France on Sunday in Manila.

A patriotic group that showed up when called upon — sadly, too much of a rarity in this country — fought tooth and nail against a very good and vastly more experienced French side, but faltered down the stretch and saw its flickering Rio dream extinguished.

The experience factor loomed large, with superstar guard Tony Parker making key play after key play down the stretch, along with Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo, also named this tournament’s top player, with some help from NBAers Nic Batum and Boris Diaw.

Older, wiser, deeper France made the plays when it mattered most in a game that decided the final spot in the Olympic field. Canada last qualified in Sydney in 2000, losing an elimination game to France that thwarted a potential medal bid there.

Nowadays, Canada is rising, while some of France’s stars are playing their final games with the program.

Canada should never have been in this position after steamrolling the field at the FIBA Americas in Mexico City last September. But that group, regarded as the best ever fielded by Canada, laid an egg against a weak Venezuela side in another winner-to-Rio contest, which forced a trip to the Philippines for a last-chance tournament and an inevitable meeting with France, ranked No. 5 in the world.

Still, Canada gave France a battle. Melvin Ejim was brilliant, Cory Joseph had a stellar first half — before turnovers caught up with him and his teammates — and Tristan Thompson did a nice job on the boards.

Diaw’s three-pointer just before the buzzer broke a tie at the half and France built the lead up to 10 points, but Canada rallied to get it down to five entering the fourth.

But once again, Canada did not have enough offensive options and the team never got untracked in Manila (second-last in three-point and free-throw shooting), while France was able to execute, particularly a crucial Parker three over his long-time San Antonio backup Joseph with about two minutes remaining, one of four late-clock makes that head coach Jay Triano called “backbreakers” afterward.

Would the result have been different had Canada been at full strength? We will never know. Canada again was younger than its opponents, without as many FIBA games to improve on. The roster came together quickly, without a ton of time to get familiar with each other.

“We’re a young team, and hopefully we learn and grow from this,” Triano said, pointing out that Canada went 7-2 overall this summer, losing only to France and Croatia, both teams going to the Olympics by winning their last-chance tournaments.

“We’re going to keep getting better, we’ve got some great talent in our country and I appreciate the sacrifices that our players made. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t get a win and have these guys rewarded with becoming Olympians.”

Andrew Wiggins, the former rookie of the year and supposed face of Canadian basketball, opted not to play this summer. Nik Stauskas, one of the team’s top performers a year ago before missing the Venezuela contest due to food poisoning, opted to focus on getting bigger and stronger, before joining Philadelphia’s summer-league squad in Las Vegas.

Promising young guard Jamal Murray, so good at the Pan Am Games last year, is with Denver’s summer-league squad (rookies rarely get clearance to play for their country). Kelly Olynyk, another key in Mexico, is rehabbing an injury, fellow big men Andrew Nicholson and Dwight Powell were busy getting lucrative NBA contracts worked out and Utah’s Trey Lyles opted not to play.

Any of them would have helped the cause for a team that struggled to put points on the board.

The Wiggins situation was handled poorly. While he has played the second-most NBA minutes over the past two seasons and has an incoming head coach in Tom Thibodeau who is known to play his starters a ton, Wiggins has been off since April, is still young and, most importantly, has long been seen as the top dog of this “golden generation” of Canadian basketball.

Everyone has the right not to play — and there were some valid reasons to make that decision. They just should have been communicated better and Wiggins will have to accept the fallout from a loud pocket of basketball fans in this country that will place much of the blame for failing to qualify at his feet.

Especially since older veterans Thompson and Joseph joined the squad, despite playing heavy minutes into June and late-may, respectively.

“I keep Canada close to my heart, so whenever I get a chance, I’m honoured to play for them, and I try to go out there and leave it all on the court,” Joseph said after leading the team in scoring in all four games.

“Playing for Canada, we have a great coaching staff, so I’m still working on my game, still getting better, and there’s no better competition you’ll get in the world in the summertime than playing.”

But it seems many Canadian players don’t share the same pride of playing for their country that propels many of the existing powers.

“All the players, they love the national team and the results we have gotten over the years comes to us from this love,” French coach Vincent Collet said.

Parker suited up even though his wife is expecting a baby any day now. Batum rushed to their side after quickly getting a deal signed with Charlotte.

“I don’t know if we can talk about sacrifice, but for sure it is enthusiasm, interest and they are ready to give everything for the national team,” Collet added.

Wiggins, watching his Timberwolves play summer league basketball on Sunday, politely declined to speak with Postmedia, saying, “I'm not talking about Canada Basketball right now.”

With FIBA changing up its procedures moving forward, most qualifying games will be held during the NBA season, which will severely impact the availability of top talent, especially for Canada and France, who trail only the United States in NBA players.

So now, and perhaps well into the future, Canada’s hoops hopes rest on an excellent women’s squad that dominated last summer’s competitions and has a shot at a medal at the Olympics.

QUALIFYING FOR WORLDS MIGHT BE EVEN TOUGHER

Canada had two chances to get to the Rio Olympics. But it lost in September and now on Sunday to get denied. The next major competition the senior men can make is the 2019 World Cup in China, but getting there might be even more difficult.

That's because the country that trails only the United States in terms of NBA players won't have any of those men available for qualifying games because they will now be held during the NBA season (November, February and June).

In the event that whatever team Canada fields for those qualifiers makes it through to the next stage of qualifying, NBAers might finally be available for the September 2018 qualifiers, but they won’t be for the final ones in November and then February 2019.

The World Cup will take place in September of 2019.

Though more teams will now qualify for the World Cup, Canada's talent advantage (as well as other countries like France, the U.S. and Australia) will be negated significantly.

FIBA’s argument is giving star players the summer off will increase their chances of participating at the World Cup, but that reasoning only works if their country actually manages to qualify without them.

@WolstatSun



Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »