HAMILTON — In all, a success. It wasn’t perfect, but the new iteration of the Canadian men’s senior national team more than got the job done against the Dominican Republic in World Cup Qualifying on Friday night.
They thumped the visitors 95-75 in a win that had its bumps in the early going, but in the end was just what everyone expected going in: a team with some elite NBA talent supported by polished pros elsewhere in the lineup is tough for anyone to handle.
Canada was led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who topped all scorers with 32 points and added five rebounds and five assists, as the Oklahoma City Thunder star helped his team blow the game open with a 15-point fourth quarter. His cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker of the Utah Jazz, added 17 points, while the Detroit Pistons’ Kelly Olynyk added 17 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Dallas Mavericks big man Dwight Powell contributed nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, while adding six rebounds and setting an endless supply of ball screens for Canada’s guards.
The win improved Canada to 5-0 in Group C play in the first stage of qualifying. They complete the stage on Monday when they travel to play Virgin Islands, who are last in the group. Whatever the outcome there — Canada won by 48 without the benefit of their NBA talent when they played in February — Canada is assured to advance to the second stage and, barring a sudden turn of fortune, are well-positioned to advance to the FIBA World Cup of Basketball in the Philippines and Japan.
But the result was in some way secondary as the game was the first test of the senior men’s team’s plan to establish a summer core of 14 players. That plan involves their top talent committing to play for Canada this summer and the next two after in order to build cohesion on their way to what they hope will be their first Olympic appearance since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
The difference was evident before the ball went up as Canada introduced its starting lineup — featuring four NBAers to the delight of a sold-out lower-bowl crowd of approximately 6,000 at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ont. No one received a bigger cheer than Gilgeous-Alexander, who played high school basketball in the city before leaving for the United States.
“It was so fun,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who got the crowd on its feet early with a left-handed dunk, a first-time event for the right-hander, apparently. “Just knowing that all the people that have seen me grow from when I was like, in high school, were there seeing me play today. Something I can’t describe and then it went just how I wanted to coming in.”
Indeed, Canada had more NBA players on the bench watching (not all members of the summer core were able to play this summer, but as part of their commitment are expected to be part of training camps and team events) than the Dominican, who counted none in their lineup.
Needless to say, they had no one to match Gilgeous-Alexander, who was as impressive as possible in making his first on-court appearance with the men’s team, a performance that bodes well for the future, but also signalled his emerging status as one of the best guards Canada has ever had.
“He’s up there with the best of them for sure,” said national team veteran Olynyk, who is in his second decade with the program. “It’s a privilege to play with a guy like that. We’ve had a lot of them coming through this program now. He’s not alone. It’s fun to play with him, fun to watch, fun to witness. I think everybody here got a treat tonight.
“His IQ is high. He knows the game, sees the game, is unselfish,” Olynyk continued. He gets off the ball, gets it back, takes his spots when they’re there. He really knows how to play in the flow of the game. That’s something that’s kind of lost sometimes. He’s really good at it. Obviously, he’s a high-level player, super skilled on both ends of the floor. He changes the game, like you saw there in the third quarter. He just changed the game for us.”
Canada’s talent advantage showed early on. After a sloppy start for Canada, they got their first separation from a scrappy DR squad with a 7-0 spur that featured a put back by Olynyk, a spectacular block on a dunk attempt by Kyle Alexander (a European pro with NBA experience), two free throws by Gilgeous-Alexander, and a three by Alexander-Walker. Another triple at the buzzer by Alexander-Walker — who had nine points in the quarter — gave Canada a 21-16 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The visitors continued to push and led 31-30 with 5:48 to play in the half and had the game tied 35-35 with 3:09 to play before Canada finished on an 11-1 run, punctuated by a tip-in at the buzzer by Gilgeous-Alexander before the teams jogged off to their respective dressing rooms.
Canada’s talent edge began to show even more clearly in the third quarter. First Olynyk and Powell combined on few high-low passing plays that resulted in Powell dunks. Then Gilgeous-Alexander began doing what he does best in the NBA — using his low dribble and long strides to get the ball into the paint, where he finished or drew fouls. Sufficiently warmed up, he stepped into a triple in transition to extend Canada’s led to 21 with 2:57 left in the third. Two more triples by Alexander put Canada up by 28 late in the period as Canada led 76-48 to start the fourth quarter.
Canada was never seriously threatened after that and the highlight of the period was when 7-foot- 4 Zach Edey of Purdue University — the only college player named to Canada’s summer core — subbed in to make his senior men’s team debut, much to the delight of the crowd who were squarely behind the Toronto-born big man. The 20-year-old got himself on the board with a pair of free throws for his first points with the senior team.