Latest heartbreak pushes Canadian men's Olympic dream out of reach again

Canada's Olympic hopes were dashed as they fell to the Czech Republic 103-101 in the semifinal of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

VICTORIA – The dream will have to wait until next year. Well, actually, 2024.

That’s when the next summer Olympic Games. They’re in Paris.

Canadian basketball fans and the Canadian men’s team will have no choice but turn their attention to the future, because they aren’t going to Tokyo.

In yet another heartbreaking defeat by a program that provides them in volume, Canada fell to the Czech Republic 103-101 in overtime of the semifinal of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament held on their home court in Victoria.

“I’m very disappointed, of course, who wouldn’t be,” said team captain Cory Joseph. “I think the whole country is disappointed.”

How could you not be?

The difference was a turnaround jumper off the backboard after an expert defensive contest by Luguentz Dort with 1.8 seconds left. A wide-open baseline jumper from Trey Lyles on a well-executed out-of-bounds play from head coach Nick Nurse rattled in and out, and the 2020 Tokyo dream was dead.

The outcome was the same – Canada’s men’s team has now failed to qualify for five straight Olympics and has appeared at the Summer Games only once since 1988 – but the path was unique, as always.

It turns out there’s always another way to have your basketball soul snatched away.

That Canada made it to overtime was a minor miracle. They had to come back from down nine with 44 seconds to play, which they did with a late flurry of threes and steals that culminated with an Andrew Wiggins triple with 11 seconds left to tie it.

The heart was there. There was no quit.

But the simplest analysis?

Canada couldn’t make a three-point shot when they needed one. There are plenty of other reasons – a lack of size, too many breakdowns by a team of players unfamiliar with each other and the FIBA game, maybe being overwhelmed by the moment in some cases.

But all of that could have been overcome with some timely shooting. Going 9-of-37 from deep in an elimination game will almost never cut it. With the Olympics in the balance, Canada couldn’t hit the water in nearby Oak Bay from a boat.

So now Canada has to figure out what went wrong and what to do next.

The problem is there are no easy answers, other than winning in international basketball is really hard and requires talent, commitment and passion.

Canada has plenty of talent, as has been documented ad nauseum. But they’ve had little luck in getting the commitment from the right players at the right time.

Men’s team general manager Rowan Barrett did a great job getting eight of Canada’s pool of NBA players to commit to what was hoped to be seven full weeks in a bubble, away from friends and family, had they qualified for Tokyo.

On paper it was the most talented team to ever represent Canada, but there were gaps, too.

The Czechs ran most of their offence through a pair of seven-footers in Ondrej Balvin and Jan Vesely, playing the inside-out game to perfection. Balvin finished with 14 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks, but most crucially four assists. Vesely added four more. Many of those helpers were out to shooters wide-open at the three-point line as Canada scrambled to help their over-matched bigs inside and rotate back to shooters.

Czech shot 13-of-28 from deep and 37-year-old Blake Schilb punished them, going 7-of-12 from three on his way to 31 points in a game that his teammates fully expected would be his last in a Czech uniform, given Canada was a 16-point favourite.

Would having rugged Tristan Thompson available have made a difference defensively? What if bigs Khem Birch and Kelly Olynyk weren’t pending free agents?

We’ll never know, but the Czech Republic had nine returning players from a team that finished sixth at the 2019 World Cup. Canada had one, so that must mean something.

There are circumstances and realities and challenges, but it’s always going to be hard to come out on top in must-win games against quality teams without either elite talent or elite chemistry or ideally both.

“I think if we can get a group of guys that stick together for some years, that always helps,” said Nurse, who was non-committal about his plans to keep coaching for another Olympic cycle, but certainly seemed open it. “Case in point is tonight. I’m not making any excuses … we had our chances. We did. We had our chances. Continue to build our program, learn a lot from this and continue to build it.”

If Canada could catch a break here or there it would help too. In 2015 they saw a chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics get pulled out from under them by some strange luck and iffy calls that played into a significant upset by Venezuela.

Six years later, as Canada was building some fourth-quarter momentum after being down by 13 midway through the third, Lyles was called for unsportsmanlike foul on Balvin after Lyles arm seemed to inadvertently hit the big man in the head after trying to block his shot. The Czechs got two free throws for the foul on the shot and two more for the unsportsmanlike call, and in an instant Canada was down nine after having clawed within five.

“I was watching the replay. I mean, he did hit him and that stuff but … there wasn't anything unnatural about it to me,” said Nurse. “Just two guys playing hard and going for a rebound and people getting tangled up. I don't know what Trey did other than just bring the ball down with two hands, right, or tried to.”

Nurse was being charitable. RJ Barrett was seen roaring at the officials and wagging his finger in anger after the final horn. That seemed more fitting.

Canada didn’t quit. The shame of it is the sequence that forced overtime could have gone down as the best 44 seconds in the history of the sport in this country. Down nine with 44 seconds left, Barrett hit a three to cut the Czech lead to six; Wiggins scored a three-point play with 17 seconds left to halve that before Nickeil Alexander-Walker made a steal on the ensuing inbounds and got it to Wiggins for the tying triple.

To the extent that 750 fans could lift the roof of a building that holds 7,500, they gave it an honest effort. Canada even went up by five in overtime before its offence ground to a halt again. But a Wiggins jumper with 16 seconds left tied the score and it looked like another overtime was coming before Tomas Satoransky hit his banked-in prayer over Dort, who defended him perfectly.

Barrett led Canada with 23 points, Wiggins had 22 and Alexander-Walker had 21, but it wasn’t enough on an afternoon when the team was fighting uphill from the opening minutes of the game and simply couldn’t shoot well enough when they needed to.

It’s another frustrating result after years of the same. But there’s room for optimism, too. Objectively, Canada Basketball has never been in a better place in terms of its programming, economics, depth or infrastructure. The women’s team is poised for a medal breakthrough in Tokyo. Age-group teams of both genders routinely challenge for medals at international events. The most impressive players here in Victoria were Barrett, Alexander-Walker and Dort – all of whom just finished their second NBA season. Wiggins – as engaged as he’s ever been with the national team – is still only 26. Jamal Murray’s knee should heal and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s foot should, too. The pipeline is full.

Canada is an elite basketball country if you pull the lens back wide enough, and there’s clearly potential for more, but a glaring hole in the resume is a signature accomplishment by its men’s team. It can’t be ignored or wished away.

It’s been supposed to happen so many times now, it’s easy to lose track or get cynical about it, but the only solution is to keep trying, keep hoping and keep dreaming. It’s corny, but consider the alternative.

“These games happen too much for our liking,” said Joseph, who has played for Canada since he was a teenager and has the scars to show for it. “But it’s something we have to continue to chip at, continue to hammer the rock because FIBA’s not going anywhere for a long time.”

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