Canada picks itself back up after devastating loss

Eric Smith and Michael Grange recap Canada’s bronze medal win, their performance overall at the 2015 FIBA Americas and their hopes to qualify for the Olympics.

MEXICO CITY — In a small hot room in the bowels of the Palacio Des Los Deportes, a crumbling stadium in a part of this city where everything seems to be under repair, Steve Nash was still trying to make sense of how it all came apart.

It’s his job to make sense of it all, even if you can’t sometimes. As the general manager of the Canadian men’s national team and the face of the sport in the country, it’s his personal commitment that adds credibility to the notion that the sport, driven by the men’s national team, is not just on the rise, but close to arriving at somewhere meaningful.

The best he could come up with is that they’ll get there. It just won’t be in a straight line.

“It was obviously a devastating result for us,” said Nash in reference to heavily favoured Canada’s controversial one-point loss to Venezuela on Friday night. A win would have put them in the Olympics. The loss, on a phantom foul with 0.3 left on the clock, puts them in limbo, having to wait until next summer to win a six-team qualifying tournament.

“It was a tough night. We’re in one of the stages of grieving. Today we’ve got to bounce back and pick ourselves up and learn another lesson.”

For what it’s worth. They did bounce back. They did learn something. Against a Mexican team that played like earning a bronze medal at FIBA Americas was important, and in front of a crowd that sounded like gold was on the line, Canada survived blowing an eight-point lead with 2:32 left thanks to a pair of Cory Joseph jumpers in the final 24 seconds — including a fall-away jumper at the buzzer that gave Canada the 87-86 win.

Not pretty, but better than the alternative.

“I watched some of the game, I was thinking about the game all night,” said Joseph. “To me, I try to look at the positives … there is no other place I would rather be right now but with this team. I love those guys, I felt like we made a step in the right direction and to come back today and get the W in a battle like this, it shows the character we have and the kind character guys we have on this team.”

This is the thing. Canada is the youngest team in the tournament, one of the youngest in the world. In the third-place game against Mexico the average age of their lineup was less than 24 years old; their two oldest players, Robert Sacre (26) and Aaron Doornekamp (29) have been at the back end of Triano’s rotation most of the summer. The average age of Canada’s starters is 22.

Nash wasn’t trying to make that an excuse for a performance that was so mysterious in its tentativeness. But ignoring it doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

“Anyway you slice it, we were not ourselves, from the first minute to the 40th minute,” said Nash, who watched the game from a front-row seat at midcourt. “We never found our rhythm. We never found our confidence We never found our calm. We were (in our heads) the whole game. That’s natural for a young team in these circumstances.

“We were the favourite in the tournament. We finished with the number one seed. And we’d never been in that situation. That’s natural. We all thought we were past it by beating Mexico in their own country, but the truth is it’s a really natural process for a young team like that that’s never had these types of collective experiences to face these types of situations and disappointments. We’ve got to pick them up. … We’ve got to prepare them for next summer.”

And yes, Nash thought the call on Doornekamp was terrible. But no, he doesn’t think it was the defining moment of the game.

“I mean, it’s an amazing call,” he said, laughing. “Especially when right next to the call, (Andrew) Wiggins got thrown out of bounds. You see him on the replay flying towards basket stanchion and they decide on a tic tac foul, when the ball is 15 feet in the air. Tough, but, hey, that’s happened and frankly we didn’t deserve it. We didn’t play well. We didn’t deserve it. So, that’s why I think there wasn’t an incredible amount of protest, because we were like, ‘We need to take this one on the chin, we didn’t deserve to win.’

Nash also defended Jay Triano, who left himself open to second guessing by sitting Wiggins for 10 minutes of the second half and playing Anthony Bennett just 15 minutes after Bennett had been leaned on heavily all summer. Nik Stauskas also saw limited action but it was revealed later than he’d been hospitalized the day before with food poisoning. Stauskas didn’t play Saturday night and neither did Bennett as the minutes leader from Canada this past summer wasn’t feeling well, and sat the last game out.

“All these decisions about personnel and rotation when you have a team as deep as ours, it’s six of one, half dozen of the other,” said Nash. “So all the armchair quarterbacks, congratulations, you’ve got a better formula? You’re not there, you’re not seeing these guys grow and change and develop everyday.

“Frankly, like who do you play last night? Everybody was a little bit off mentally,” added Nash, who called second-guessing Canada’s rotation ‘boring.’ “We were searching, we were trying to find it and we found a couple guys that got us up seven points with three minutes left and it wasn’t to be. Hindsight’s 20/20 but it’s laughable to me how people think they get it and they’re not around and we’re talking about like four experts on the bench there, who know what they’re doing and have been with these guys everyday.”

The task now is to figure out what to do next. Sportsnet has learned Canada Basketball is actively exploring hosting one of the three last-chance qualifying events at the Air Canada Centre next summer. It could carry a $5-million price tag. Helping various stakeholders find the money might be Nash’s next big contribution to the sport.

In the meantime, how to assess where Canada stands after a summer in which they went 16-3 and won two medals (silver at the Pan Am Games, Bronze here) yet fell short of their ultimate goal?

What’s apparent is that they have NBA talent and more coming, but hardly talent that is used to making an impact in meaningful NBA games. Kelly Olynyk and Joseph are the only ones who played meaningful minutes on playoff teams, for example.

In addition as a group they are short in international experience and experience together.

“At the end of the day, this is the game of basketball,” said Wiggins of his first senior national team experience. He called the loss against Venezuela the toughest of his career.

“We get better every practice, every game we play. We learn more. We gain more experience, more knowledge. The chemistry builds with the guys. It’s a good group of guys that’s going to be together for a long time.”

It’s that pain, shared amongst a group, that Nash feels could provide the real value going forward.

“I think long-term for sure you learn a lot more from disappointment and devastation and building resolve and poise and adapting to situations,” he said. “These guys are all just getting started, collectively especially. We move on. We stay positive. We fight.”

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