MANILA, Philippines — These are the games that later become remembered as chapters, when a bronze-medal match that could have been a forgettable, 4:30 a.m. ET snoozefest morphed into a thriller.
Remember when Team USA was down three key rotation pieces, because a nasty illness swept through half the roster and its coaching staff? Remember when Mikal Bridges intentionally missed a free throw right, then ripped the ball toward the corner, backpedaled behind the arc and cashed a heroic triple to force overtime? Remember Canada’s first victory over America at the FIBA World Cup, claiming the country’s first medal in tournament history — its first FIBA medal since the 1936 Olympics — with its own All-Star reinforcements bound for Paris in 2024?
An impending rivalry between the neighboring lands has been brewing with each bounce of international basketball over the past decade. And the Canadians’ 127-118 triumph over big brother south of the border now marks a beginning. What could create an epic tale for many years and tournaments to come.
“It’s good momentum for us. To hold onto that throughout this [NBA] season,” said Dillon Brooks, who scored a game-high 39 points on a blistering shooting display from distance. “I’ll see a lot of my [Canadian] teammates during this season, and guys that weren’t here. That’s just motivating to them as well, you know, to join us and re-up and get better to make a run in this Olympics.”
— FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 🏆 (@FIBAWC) September 10, 2023
Five of Brooks’ seven 3-pointers came off feeds from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the inimitable Oklahoma City All-Star who carved Team USA’s porous defense for 31 points of his own, to go along with 12 dimes and six rebounds.
Brooks distributed five assists, too. But Gilgeous-Alexander was so lethal weaving his way through the Americans’ scheme, Steve Kerr opted to send double-team after double-team at the brilliant ball-handler — typically shading Bridges his direction. And when SGA wasn’t still capable of sneaking his way toward the rim, Brooks made Team USA pay on all but one of his eight attempts from outside.
“We tried everything,” Kerr said of their efforts to limit Gilgeous-Alexander.
“He’s just nice,” Bridges said. “He’s just slithery. He knows how to get out of the way and get away from you. He’s first team [All-NBA] for a reason. He’s just tough. He’s an unbelievable player.”
Once Bridges’ highlight heave forced an extra five minutes at Mall of Asia Arena on Sunday, Gilgeous-Alexander opened overtime on a decisive 5-0 spurt all on his own. He cut left and collected a give-and-go from Dwight Powell, the Dallas Mavericks center, and the guard’s high-arcing, midrange fallaway didn’t even scuff the rim as it splashed through cotton. The very next possession, SGA hunted Austin Reaves on a switch, then shed the Lakers combo guard with a vicious stepback that also sent Bridges sliding to the deck.
“He kills everybody in the league,” Reaves said. “He’s one day probably going to be in the race for MVP.”
As Brooks mentioned, Canada indeed has more depth looming on the horizon. Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, clearly an All-Star talent following an impressive Finals run, was bound for Southeast Asia before he pulled out of Canada’s camp due to stated fatigue from the playoffs. Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors’ one-time All-Star swingman, would add another two-way force who already has an NBA championship to his name. If you want to keep listing strong NBA players the Canadians and first-year head coach Jordi Fernandez can add to this mix: Kings forward Trey Lyles; Grizzlies big man Brandon Clarke, currently sidelined with a torn Achilles; veteran guard Cory Joseph; Spurs big man Khem Birch; and Celtics wing Oshae Brissett.
“We have guys that are gonna want to be part of it, and we’ll decide when the time comes,” Fernandez said. “But all these [World Cup] guys have the number one ticket because we’ve made this happen. We believe in loyalty. Obviously, you come and you fight for the spot, but we owe a lot to these guys. And if we want to build the right program, if we don’t do it this way, it doesn’t make sense.”
Fernandez represents another true gem at the Canadians’ disposal. He was a finalist for the Raptors job this summer that ultimately went to Darko Rajaković, and made strong impressions interviewing in Milwaukee and Phoenix, league sources told Yahoo Sports. When next summer’s coaching carousel inevitably spins once again, rest assured Fernandez will be right back at the top of teams’ wish lists, particularly after this strong showing with Canada in Manila and Jakarta before that.
“We got a great coach, who believes in us, who has great schemes and is very patient with us,” Brooks said. “He finds a way to motivate us every single day to get better and figure out how to get guys in the NBA who, we don’t get paid for this, to sacrifice. Kudos to Jordi. He’s been one of my best coaches I’ve ever played with.”
Kerr will hold the post of Team USA’s play-caller through the Paris Games. And if the Americans hope to avenge this World Cup shortcoming, just as Team USA accomplished gold in Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics following a seventh-place World Cup finish in 2019, they will need to find a combination that can slow opponents’ scoring attacks far better than what this outfit did throughout three weeks in the Philippines. Kerr said he and Team USA’s staff have studied the different challenges of the FIBA game and attempted to construct a two-way roster, yet this group failed to slow any foe with legitimate talent in this tournament, dropping three of their last four games to Lithuania, Germany and Canada.
“A team scores 127 points, shoots 51%, makes 17 3s, you’re probably not gonna win,” Kerr said.
“We can’t get no stops,” Anthony Edwards said. “I don’t know what we could have done. Our defense was pretty bad.”
Guessing which holdovers from this roster will follow Kerr to France can be a fun exercise. But the likelihood is very few, if any, of these young pieces will appear among that 12-man lineup. Poll various NBA agents and coaches who were on the ground here in Manila, asking which three members of this group they would select to represent the United States, you’d be hard pressed to find anything close to a consensus.
For now, a long flight home stands before both these North American programs, one charter will be however many kilos heavier thanks to a bunch of bronze medallions hanging around their necks.
Germany later capped an impressive World Cup crown with a 83-77 victory over Serbia, and both countries will stand as other FIBA powers for the foreseeable future. Keep in mind Slovenia, Spain, up-and-coming Latvia, Australia and more. The burgeoning battle between Canada and the United States, though, adds another intriguing subplot to this realm that we’ve never truly witnessed before.
“We really wanted to play the U.S.,” Brooks said, “and we got our wish.”
They combined for the second-highest scoring game in World Cup history.
Here’s hoping for many more.