Canada relying on heart, defence-first philosophy as Olympic qualifying nears

Golden State Warriors' Andrew Wiggins, left, shoots against Oklahoma City Thunder's Luguentz Dort during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Saturday, May 8, 2021. (Jed Jacobsohn/AP)

TORONTO – If there’s one thing that’s been a consistent and constant message from Nick Nurse as head coach of the Toronto Raptors, it’s been his adamant messaging that if any team is going to find success, the foundation of it all must be laid out on the defensive end of the floor.

This philosophy is a big reason why the Raptors won the NBA championship in 2019 and, given the fact the Raptors were just a middle-of-the-pack defensive team this past NBA season, only serves as more proof of Nurse’s theory.

The old saying that defence wins championships holds true for a reason, after all. It’s no surprise then that Nurse is giving the same level of importance to being a strong defensive club with his job as the Canadian men’s national team as he does as the Raptors’ coach.

“First of all, defence has got to be one of our primary strengths, it really does,” Nurse said of Team Canada as it prepares for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C., beginning June 29. “I think we’ve got the personnel, the athleticism, the length, all those things to be disruptive defensively. It’s got to be one of our focus areas. I believe that it’s what really good teams are made of, in my opinion. It fuels offence in my opinion. That’s got to be at the top of the priority list.”

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Though who, exactly, is at Canada’s senior men’s national team camp is still a bit of a mystery, to hear Nurse describe it, the group that is there is there offers much flexibility for Nurse to work with to mix and match on the defensive end.

“The versatility, there’s a lot,” Nurse said of the defensive looks Team Canada might be able to roll out during the tournament. “I think there’s a lot and that comes from a good section of wing players. We got a good amount of wing players, we’ve got some pretty good size at the one and the two so that gives you some flexibility, versatility there as well. And we’ve got some pretty good feet at the five so we should be able to do just about any schemes and coverages we want to do.”

Of the many wing players Nurse has at his disposal, his top defensive option from that spot will no doubt be Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort.

Though he was snubbed from any of the NBA’s all-defensive teams this past season, anyone who’s seen the Montreal native play in the NBA for even jut five minutes knows he’s one of basketball’s premier perimeter stoppers and now getting a chance to see him up close and personal as his coach has only affirmed Nurse’s belief in Dort from the times he’s had to coach against him in the NBA.

“My opinion of him hasn’t changed, seeing him up close, to what it was before I was seeing him up close,” said Nurse. “He’s really good, man. Defence, a lot of it is desire, right? He has a lot of desire to play it and that goes along with the gifts he’s been given, physically to do it and he matches those up together very well.”

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, right, drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder Luguentz Dort during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Saturday, May 8, 2021. (Jed Jacobsohn/AP)

Odds are, if Canada’s going to reach the Tokyo Olympics, it’s going to need everything Dort can provide. Unlike other countries that Canada will see in Victoria — like Greece, who have had the luxury of playing friendlies — it doesn’t look like Canada will be able to get any exhibition contests in before the games become real.

“Well, I don’t think we can,” said Nurse when asked how Canada might be able to replicate the kind of experience other teams are getting playing in friendlies. “We do the best we can maybe a little differently. Maybe you would go play one of those games and then you’d have film to say, ‘Hey, this is the physicality that will be allowed, this is a travel, this is always going to be a foul, this is always going to be whatever after a game like that.’ We may have to orchestrate some of those things ourselves. You can’t not talk about the rule changes, the style-of-play changes, how-the-game’s-reffed changes.

“So we’ll be showing film of that, we’ll be going through it, setting it up. So, to answer your question, the best way we replicate it is in our film room and in our practice games and scrimmages.”

This is why having a talent the level of a Dort – or other players like R.J. Barrett, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Trey Lyles, Melvin Ejim and Andrew Nicholson – is so vitally important for Canada. This isn’t a team with much experience playing with each other and will have to make up for it on the strength of its raw ability and the passion each player in camp is bringing to the program to try to qualify for the Games.

For Dort, beyond what his talents bring to Canada’s Olympic hopes, just getting a chance to be part of Team Canada is rather significant as he never played for the national team much growing up with the age-group teams.

“My first thing was just to represent my country,” Dort said when asked why he decided to suit up for Team Canada. “I’d just never played Team Canada in my whole life. I felt like it was a great opportunity for me to come out this year and to be able to represent my country.”

Nick-Nurse Canada’s head coach Nick Nurse is pictured before FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 exhibition game action against Nigeria, in Toronto on Wednesday August 7, 2019. (Chris Young/CP)

This willingness and enthusiasm Dort is bringing to the team is a key trait that Nurse said everyone in camp has and is why, despite the lack of warmup time Canada has, Nurse believes this team is “taking shape very well.”

“I think the one thing, and it’s an identity that I keep coming back to, is a tremendous commitment and heart for these guys,” said Nurse. “I mean, I like it that you guys can’t see it so nobody can see what it looks like and it’s nice not to show the world everything you’re doing, right? But I wish you could see it, on the other hand as well, because it really is a pure joy and a great commitment and heart, and that’s one identity that I will probably – well you guys will probably get tired of me talking about, but I’m not going to stop talking about it.

“And the other one we’ve already talked about as well is I think we’ve got to have a defensive identity. I think we’ve got the players and the ability to do it. But, saying that, that takes an understanding of schemes that takes a willingness and a desire that’s there, and then it takes reps to build the kind of fundamentals of doing things consistently over and over and that’s what we’re trying to do in a short window here.

“And then, lastly, I just hope we share the ball, man. I hope we make good decisions that work for each other at the offensive end. And that kind of rounds up my three points of our identity.”

Defence, heart and a dash of some offensive flow. It doesn’t necessarily sound like the prettiest way to win basketball games, but given the personnel Canada features with players like Dort and just how little time this team has to prepare for a tournament with just about everything on the line for the program it’s just going to have to do.

Getting stops and playing hard and for each other can go a long way for any basketball team, and given how talented Canada could potentially be it just might enable this squad to punch its ticket to Tokyo.

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