MEXICO CITY — It doesn’t take much for a rivalry to get started in international basketball and Canada and Argentina already have the makings of a good one.
The two teams meet Tuesday in Canada’s opening game of the FIBA Tournament of the Americas and Canada should have plenty of fuel for the fire beyond the importance of getting off to a good start in efforts to earn a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Just last week the two countries met in the opening match of the Tuto Marchand Cup in Puerto Rico and while Canada won on their way to going 4-0 in the tournament, a questionable play by an Argentinean defender who chose to run through a Kelly Olynyk screen rather than try to get around it left the Canadian big man sidelined for the rest of the exhibition tournament with a strained left knee.
It was just one of a number of plays by the notoriously physical Argentines that turned the temperature up.
Olynyk has practiced the past three days in Mexico City and Canadian head coach Jay Triano pronounced him ready for action.
“I expect he’ll play tomorrow,” he said.
No one is happier about that than Cory Joseph, who grew up playing club basketball in Toronto with the Boston Celtics seven-footer and recognizes the impact his versatility can have on a Canadian team that is still trying to find its fluidity offensively.
With his ability to play inside-and-out, shoot, dribble and especially pass he could easily emerge as the lynchpin that connects the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Nik Stauskas and Andrew Nicholson in a Canadian attack that has so many mouths to feed.
“Kelly is very important. He’s been on the national team for a long time now, we consider him one of our leaders,” said Joseph Monday after Canada’s final practice before the tournament. “He’s very important for us. We need him on the court. He understands the international game.
“He’s a great passer and with his size he can dribble the ball, he can do everything out there, and that’s key in the international game, to have bigs that can step out and shoot and whatnot.”
Of course the expectations will be running high for Joseph too in his role as the on-floor leader of a team that has more talent to work with than any Canadian team has ever had, with eight NBA players on the roster and a ninth — Melvin Ejim — heading to training camp with the Orlando Magic.
It’s been a busy summer for him, highlighted by signing a four-year, $30-million contract in free agency with the Toronto Raptors.
But that doesn’t mean the 24-year-old doesn’t have more room to grow. He flashed his long-term potential at FIBA Americas in 2013 when he averaged 16.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He believes he’s a better, more polished player now, but he’s not at the level he wants to be yet.
He turned the ball over more than he would like in Canada’s exhibition games — six in his last game against Puerto Rico — at the Tuto Marchand Cup and he didn’t shoot the ball well in three outings, finishing averaging just 33 per cent from the floor.
“I don’t think I played well in Puerto Rico, but I’ll get over that easily,” Joseph said. “They’re exhibition games so I just needed to get the rust off, I hadn’t played since the season, but I’m ready now. Two years ago I didn’t play well in [the Tuto Marchand] and then the tournament came and I was able to make a couple of shots.
“But I was just doing things that are uncharacteristic of me, turning the ball over, things I don’t usually do, but I’ll clean that up.”
The time is now. Joseph should have Olynyk with him on the floor to help stabilize things when needed. And in Argentina they have a first opponent that will require their motors to be running early.
“I feel like Argentina is a country that always competes, that always goes out and plays their best and we want that challenge, first game,” said Joseph. “Right from the start you know it’s going to be competitive and we’re going to go out there and have our ‘A’ game.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, since 2013. We lost in Venezuela, we felt we had enough to qualify [for the world championships] and we were upset and we’re looking forward — I’m looking forward — to this opportunity we have ahead of us.”