VICTORIA, B.C. -- From the very outset of training camp opening, Canadian national team head coach Nick Nurse has remained steadfast in the belief that his team needs to have a defensive identity if it’s going to have any amount of success at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
And after seeing what transpired in Monday’s 97-91 tournament-opening victory over Greece, it’s hard to deny.
Obviously the standout offensive performances from the likes of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, R.J. Barrett and Andrew Wiggins were the big stories of Monday’s game, but they likely would have been for naught had Canada not turned things around defensively.
Canada was porous defensively, to put it lightly, during the first half of Monday’s game as they allowed a Greece team that isn’t known for its shooting prowess to go 50 per cent from the field, and 8-of-18 from three-point range.
In the first half, Greek players were routinely seen walking into the lane unimpeded where Canada’s defence would collapse, setting up easy threes or even lobs to the basket with plays coming in from the dunker spot.
That all changed in the second half, however, and a solid glimpse at how this Canadian team is going to win -- and maybe qualify for the Olympics -- was revealed.
"They came out firing man," said Wiggins of Greece’s first half. "They hit a lot of threes, they were hot. We let them get comfortable, we didn’t take them out of their comfort zone. They can shoot the basketball. They have a lot of guys who are smart so we needed to lock in defensively, so that’s what we did differently."
Specifically, what Wiggins means by the team got locked in defensively is Canada was more proactive in stopping Greek penetration and managed to force turnovers.
Greece only turned the ball over three times in the first half, but in the second half Canada made them cough the ball up 11 times.
This led to a lot more runouts and transitions opportunities for Canada, where they’re nigh unstoppable thanks to the overwhelming athletic advantage they had over Greece and every other team in this tournament.
This is likely what Nurse meant by defence being a key identity of this Canadian squad. It helps fuel a major part of Canada’s attack.
"R.J. goes through this every day with his team and his coach believes that you can’t be a winning team or a championship calibre team unless you have defence as the priority," said Nurse. "So we have been trying to work hard at it. Again, the guys put in an effort. It wasn’t easy. There were mistakes in schemes and matchups by all of us. The staff included, we all made mistakes but we tried to fix them as quick as we could and move on. Yeah, I think defence as a calling card for us has to be our identity for sure."
And to this point, this is why Canadian lockdown savant Luguentz Dort looks so important for this team.
In the second half against Greece, Dort was seen exclusively against Greek star Nick Calathes and almost entirely neutralized his impact thereafter.
"Dort is very strong. He’s gonna get a lot better in the game. He’s very good defensively. He had two steals," said Greece coach Rick Pitino after Monday’s game. "If you pick up the box score, you’re not gonna say ‘wow’. But if you watch the film, you’re gonna say, ‘Man, the guy can play.’"
Because Nurse can comfortably throw Dort on just about any matchup, it gives Canada an edge defensively that not many teams have and, perhaps, no other team has in this tournament.
It allows Canada to more aggressively, hunt for turnovers on the defensive end so it can get out in transition on offence, and also makes Canada more versatile defensively, too.
"I thought we were pretty good defensively in the second half," said Nurse. "So, again, being versatile on defence means you can change schemes and change matchups and execute them. We didn't, being honest, we didn't execute some of our schemes very well in the first half, but, you know, we'll show the tape tomorrow.
"We’ve come a long ways, but we’ve got a long-way-to-go kind of mentality, right? We've accomplished some things but we’ve certainly got a lot of areas to polish and correct and I think we’ve got the guys that can do it. We've got the focus and mentality and willingness to make those adjustments and hopefully those will translate to the floor."
As the old saying goes, "defence wins championships."
And if Canada can keep up its defensive identity chances are defence will also win a spot in the Tokyo Games.