Toronto – Just as things were looking good — almost at the moment you could allow yourself to simply relax and enjoy the collection of talent the Canadian men’s basketball team has rather than the talent that’s not playing — it all came crashing to a halt.
Kelly Olynyk – the most pedigreed player Canada has at the moment and one of just four Canadian NBA players that have committed to play at the FIBA Basketball World Cup – was attacking in the open court in the third quarter of an exhibition game against Nigeria at Mattamy Athletic Centre when he inexplicably went down in a heap.
The only logical explanation was that he had slipped on a wet portion of the floor left after his teammate, Khem Birch, had dived for a loose ball on the previous possession.
In the NBA or presumably at the World Cup the slick spot would have been wiped up in an instant.
But there was just one ball boy on duty on that end of the floor and he either missed it or didn’t have a chance to get to it before Olynyk began his attack.
Olynyk got up and tried to walk it out before his teammates got to him and advised him to think better of it. He was led down the tunnel for medical attention and his night was done.
Will the Miami Heat forward’s summer with Canada be done too?
We won’t know until after he’s been evaluated and the injury may be minor. He left the arena and went for diagnostic testing, Canadian head coach Nick Nurse said, his knee seeming to be the issue.
"We’ll find out in the morning," Nurse said.
But the severity is almost not the point. With Jamal Murray and RJ Barrett – each of whom would have added some welcome offensive punch to Canada’s lineup – sitting on the sidelines having chosen to skip playing for Canada due to minor injuries of their own, Olynyk’s hard fall was a reminder that weird things can happen in a basketball game and professional athletes competing internationally are putting their well-being at risk.
Even if Olynyk’s injury is relatively minor where will his comfort level be pushing through it on a volunteer mission?
"We cross our fingers and wait on that one," said Nurse.
The good news – based on a slim one-game sample – is Canada is not necessarily as reliant on their NBA player pool as you might think.
Canada won an entertaining game 96-87 after having fallen behind early (they trailed 20-14 after a sloppy first quarter); building up a 17-point lead in the third quarter on some scorching three-point shooting in the middle two frames of the game and solid defence, and then holding off Nigeria after the visitors cut it to two late in the fourth.
There were lots of bright spots. Andrew Nembhard, who is going into his second year at the University of Florida, was steady beyond his years down the stretch running the point, scoring four points and adding a slick assist to help Canada keep the lead. Kyle Wiltjer looked much improved compared to the player the Toronto Raptors cut in training camp a couple of years ago. He and Orlando Magic centre Khem Birch — a force at both ends — led Canada in scoring with 14 points each. But it was Canada’s depth that won the game – five players were in double figures and 12 players scored. Canada knocked down 15 threes after shooting 2-of-9 in the first quarter.
"Pretty happy really, with everybody’s performance," said Nurse. "I look down and there wasn’t one guy, ‘oh, he doesn’t belong.’ I think everybody went out there and looked like they belonged on the floor in some capacity, offensively, defensively, whatever. That was encouraging."
Before the game Nurse was musing about the quality of the European pros Canada has on the roster, most of whom are thriving in some of the most competitive and lucrative leagues overseas.
The bad news is they may be even more vital to Canada’s cause than previously imagined, depending on Olynyk’s injury.
Another concern was seeing Raptors forward Chris Boucher not dressed for the game, and Canada adding European-based big man Owen Klassen to the roster at the last minute.
There were suggestions that Boucher may have a personal issue that has come up that could keep him from playing and Klassen’s late arrival would seem to lend so credence to that, although given the front-court size of Australia, Lithuania and Senegal – Canada’s opponents in pool play in China – Klassen’s addition may simply be to get more depth up front.
Those may be problems for another day but if in the meantime Nurse could bottle the second quarter he would. Any team looks good when shots go down and Canada seemingly made every one they took, many after some crisp ball movement.
It was Wiltjer who came off the bench and got things started. He made a beautiful pass out of the post to a wide-open Cory Joseph who knocked down his first triple and then Wiltjer – who will be playing in Turkey next season, one of the top leagues in Europe – banged in three quick triples of his own to help Canada reel in Nigeria. His last three of the quarter tied the score 31-31 midway through the second, but more importantly his hot streak seemed to tear the lid off the basket after Canada shot just 2-of-9 from deep in the first quarter and 4-of-17 from the floor overall.
"Obviously we wish we could have every single player, wish we could have a roster of 30 guys, but unfortunately we can only bring 12, and unfortunately there’s a lot of obligations [NBA] guys have and injuries," said Wiltjer, whose father, Greg Wiltjer, played for Canada. "So we’re just excited for this group that we have, a lot of guys who have played international competition and we play really well together. We have a lot of good pieces, and if we just continue to work on getting better, we have a great coach, and I think the sky is the limit."
Even after Wiltjer checked out Canada kept dialing them up. They finished the half with four straight triples by three different shooters – Melvin Ejim and Olynyk with one each and veteran sharpshooter Brady Heslip with a pair.
Canada ended up shooting 9-of-13 from deep in the period and took a 50-41 lead into the half.
Canada was able to turn defence into offence as well. Through the first eight minutes of the third quarter Nigeria had been limited to 10 points and Canada was able to get out and run off some misses, most spectacularly when Joseph pushed the ball and found Birch for an impressive lob finish and one of his six field goals on seven attempts as Joseph counted one of his game-high nine assists.
Nigeria wasn’t exactly an easy test for a Canadian team with two days of practice under their belts. They have qualified for the past two Olympic tournaments and are ranked 16th in the world – seven spots ahead of No.23-ranked Canada.
The two teams will meet again on Friday in Winnipeg before Canada before the national team leave for Australia for nearly three weeks and then to China.
The question is who will be making the trip.