MEXICO CITY — The contrast in the atmosphere between their game against Mexico on Tuesday night and their Wednesday matinee against the Dominican Republic in front of a crowd that would hardly fill a high school gym was palpable.
But the result remained the same.
A hot-shooting Canadian start, contributions from all corners of the lineup and another huge win, this time 120-103 in a game that was again decided after the opening quarter.
It was Canada’s seventh straight win since their opening game loss to Argentina at FIBA Americas, all of them by at least 17 points as they have emerged as the dominant team in the field.
They’ve done what they can do and earned their just reward: The No. 1 seed which was only confirmed after Mexico came back from being down 15 points in the second half to upset Argentina behind behind Gustavo Ayon’s tournament-high 38 points in 39 minutes of action.
Perhaps in the ultimate sign of respect as the tournament came closer to its conclusion, it appeared teams were trying to avoid playing Canada in the semifinal. Ayon had led the tournament in minutes before facing Canada on Tuesday night and played a tournament-low 20 minutes as it appeared Mexico was content to take it’s chances with Argentina, who they will play again on Friday.
Canada will play No. 4 Venezuela on Friday, their last obstacle between them and the first Olympic berth for Canada since 2000. Canada faced them in third game of the tournament and won by 20 points in a game that was never particularly close.
Win over them one more time and they will be heading to the Olympics.
Their future is so close at hand they can almost taste it, but they are trying not to look that far ahead.
“For us it’s important to just go out there and play basketball the way we want to play, get better each day,” said Canadian forward Kelly Olynyk, who had 13 points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes. “Whether we come in first, second, third or fourth, we got to the semis and we’re going to have to play someone. We knew going into this that you’re going to have to win a semi game, whoever it’s against and that’s what we’re in position to do.”
Said head coach Jay Triano: “We’ve talked to our players that it’s not who we play, but how we play. Our focus hasn’t been on our opponent as it has been for us to do the right things and play the right way and if we do that, that’s all we can ask of ourselves. The first game was a learning experience, we got better because of it and we’ll approach the game Friday the same way.”
Although the heavy favourite, Canada needed to create their own energy after the buzz that was in the building Tuesday night. The bench and coaching staff were at full volume. Point guard Cory Joseph admitted his legs were a bit sluggish after just 16 hours between games, but he did his best to push the pace. It always helps when someone shows up ready to go and in this case it was Anthony Bennett, who has been Canada’s most consistent player all summer, dating back to their silver medal at the Pan Am Games.
He lit it up in the early goings by hitting four threes on four attempts through the game’s first five minutes and then set up one for Nik Stauskas on a kick-out, showing off his passing and ball-handling skills. By the time he knocked down a pair of free throws after being fouled in transition Canada was up 27-11 with just under four minutes left.
“Things weren’t falling for us in the post, so Kelly, he kept it occupied so I just spaced out, hit one, hit two, so just took the other two,” said Bennett, who finished with 14 points and six rebounds in 16 minutes. ”Coach didn’t like the first one, I heard on the bench, but it went in.”
By the end of the opening quarter Canada led 36-18 and shot 8-of-9 from three, including their first eight straight.
It was the second game in a row Canada used superior three-point shooting to blow a game open.
If there was a flaw in the performance it was that Canada eased up defensively and allowed the Dominican Republic to keep the game sort of close. It was 65-46 Canada at the half but that lead was cut to 13 early in the third quarter. Joseph would have none of that as he scored seven of his 17 points and added six of his seven assists in the third to push the lead back to 24 by the end of the third. Canada allowed their opponents to shoot 50 per cent in the second half.
“Even though we’ve been winning the last couple of games, we still feel like we haven’t put a full 40 minutes together of our defence,” said Joseph. “We feel like that’s what’s going to make us win games. That’s what creates our offence. We feel like a lot of this game they beat us in transition. They outhustled us.”
Joseph led seven Canadians in double figures, with two more chipping in eight points as Canada shot 57 per cent from the floor and 13-of-25 from three.
With their mission ever so close to completion, it’s worth appreciating exactly how dominant Canada has been.
John Schuman, an advanced stats guru at NBA.com, ran some numbers that captured the roll Canada has been on pretty effectively.
Canada’s offensive rating — points per 100 possessions — was 124.9, 14.3 points higher than second-place Mexico before games on Wednesday. Their defensive rating was 96.1, second only to Argentina’s 94.9, and a number that would likely be better if it weren’t for some of the empty numbers teams have put up against Canada well after games were in hand. The result was a net rating of 28.8, 12 points better than Argentina.
It’s all even more remarkable because of the way Canada’s minutes have been distributed. Andrew Wiggins and Stauskas have seen the most floor time, averaging just over 24 minutes per game. Meanwhile, 10 players are averaging at least 11 minutes a game, and the only reason it’s not 11 guys is that Dwight Powell played just five minutes against Venezuela before leaving the game after being dropped by an intentional foul on a dunk attempt.
Canada is relatively under-represented among the tournament leaders, with Wiggins being only the fifth-leading scorer at 15.5 per game and no rebounders within the top five, although Joseph is second in assists with 5.6 a game.
But Canada does boast three of the top three-points shooters, by percentage, in the tournament with Wiggins, Stauskas and Phil Scrubb all averaging 50 per cent or better from deep.
In short, Canada has done everything they can do with the exception of their opening game against Argentina. They’ve defended, passed, shot and scored at an exceedingly high level. They’ve handled every challenge thrown their way and enjoyed breakout performances from up-and-down their line-up on a nearly quarter-by-quarter basis.
They’ve earned their spot in the semi-finals and will arrive there healthy, rested and on a roll.
Barring an unfortunate encounter with banana peels or open manhole covers, this team is going to Rio.