Talent doesn’t always win out in international basketball. Instead, it tends to be about dictating style of play.
Team Canada knows that, running down the necks of teams like France, Lebanon and Latvia in their first three games as their emphasis on getting out in transition helped them go 3-0 in the group stage, with the best point differential and the best offense in the tournament as they averaged 108 points and scored at least 95 in each game.
But in their most important game of the tournament against an Americas Region rival on Friday, it was Brazil who dictated style of play from opening tip off, setting the tone with a high level of physicality that ensured the referees would hold their whistles while slowing the game down at every opportunity, in part by crashing the offensive glass. They shocked Canada with a 69-65 win, moving to 6-0 against Canada in World Cup action and 34-13 in all official games.
After winning the head-to-head matchup, Brazil now holds the tiebreaker over Canada, meaning Canada has to play for their World Cup and 2024 Olympic hopes on Sunday against No. 1 ranked Spain (9:30 a.m. E.T.).
“Obviously, give Brazil a lot of credit for the win. They played really hard,” Team Canada head coach Jordi Fernandez said after the loss. “Defensively, I think we were fine. When a team shoots 40% from the field and 19% from three, you should have a chance [to win]. But offensively, we were not willing to do anything for each other: space the floor, move the ball, move bodies. And when you play like that, it's really hard to win.”
Canada did its job on the defensive end, holding Brazil to just 11 second-quarter points and just 27 at the half, when Canada was up 37-27 after holding Brazil scoreless in the final 4:06 of the second quarter. As Fernandez alluded to, Brazil struggled to score against Canada’s switch-heavy defense, with Lu Dort, Dillon Brooks and RJ Barrett making things particularly tough for the Brazilians.
But it was Canada’s offense that struggled throughout, scoring just 65 points on 33/27/88 shooting splits while failing to move the ball from side to side and trust each other with the extra pass, finishing with just 10 assists on 21 made baskets to nine turnovers in the game.
Rather than moving the ball like we have been used to seeing throughout the World Cup — in part because they were ice cold from beyond the arc, shooting 8-of-30 from three after hitting 42.9% through their first three games — Canada settled into isolation basketball from the second quarter onwards. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort led the way with a combined 40 points on 14-of-29 shooting, but even that didn’t satisfy Fernandez, who was disappointed in his team’s inability to play their roles.
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“Shai has to score, defend and play-make, and he didn't. And I can go down the line,” Fernandez said after the game. “Kelly [Olynyk] has to play-make, rebound and score efficiently — he didn't. RJ has to run the floor and score efficiently and defend and he didn't. And Dillon has to defend without fouling, and he didn't.
“So I can go down the line of the things that we didn't do good as a group, me included. I could have called [a] timeout. I could have set up a play a different way. So, it's not about pointing at any of these guys — these guys have been amazing. They've worked really hard. They've competed at a high level. We've had one bad game right now. We own it, we'll watch it, we'll learn from it, and we're gonna come really, really, really aggressive and ready to fight the next game. That's how life is.”
The problem was that Canada never felt comfortable despite being a significantly more talented team than Brazil, who set the tone and dictated the style of play in a number of ways. First, they came out aggressive and physical on both ends of the floor, ensuring the referees would hold their whistles instead of calling a foul every single time there was contact. That enabled Brazil to even the free-throw battle while dominating the paint, outscoring Canada 38-22 in the painted area while starting center Dwight Powell struggled with foul trouble throughout.
“We just lost the intensity game,” Fernandez said. “And that's something that my guys have never lost so far because they played really, really hard. So, I think that going through it as a group, it's a really good thing for us. A bunch of young players, really good players. And it's our first time here together.
“And we're not here to go home yet. So, once again, just a good opportunity to learn from this lack of intensity and physicality at certain points of the game, especially offensively, and move on.”
The other thing Brazil did well was slow the game down from the get-go, intentionally walking the ball up the floor on every offensive possession to hold Canada to just nine fast-break points — by far a tournament low for the Canadians.
Brazil also attacked the offensive glass, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and making Canada think twice before running down the court after getting stops out of fear of the Brazilians coming up with the rebounds.
Finally, 24-year-old point guard Yago Santos put things away for the Brazilians, scoring two tough layups over world-class defenders Brooks and Dort in the final minutes of the game to finish with eight points and 10 assists in the win.
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“We're a really good team when we run the floor, when we space the floor, when we touch the paint, when we reverse the ball from side to side,” Fernandez said about Team Canada’s identity. “I thought we played the right way throughout the tournament and today we didn't. And it's not just one specific player, it was all of us as a group, me included. And if we do it [to our identity] next game, I like our chances.”
Canada’s next game will come against the No. 1 ranked team in the world: Spain. While Canada defeated Spain in a pre-tournament exhibition game in Grenada, Spain in overtime, the Spanish group has gotten better as the tournament has gone along, going 3-0 in the group stage before losing to Latvia on Friday morning, 74-69. It’s a must-win game for Canada, both for their hopes of moving on to the knockout round of the World Cup as well as for their chances to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games through this tournament. The loss to Brazil means that even if all the other teams from the Americas lose on Sunday, Brazil will be seeded ahead of Canada due to them winning the head-to-head matchup, regardless of Canada being ahead in overall point differential.
“We all have to regroup,” Dort said after the game. “I mean, we’ve all played a lot of games and we’ve all been in those types of situations where we really need a win to achieve our goals. So, like I said, we got to have a short memory… We have bigger goals and we have the right group of guys for that.”
It’s not the situation that Canada wants to be in, with a do-or-die game against one of the most consistent and battle-tested programs in the world. But at least they control their own destiny: Win and go through, likely qualifying for their first Olympics in 23 years. Lose and go home, having to take part in another risky last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament next summer directly ahead of the Games.
“I love the guys that I work with. I trust that we're gonna watch it, own it. Give our opinions, move on, get better and be ready for the next game,” Fernandez said about playing Spain, where he was an assistant coach between 2017-19.
“You do this job for games like this: It's a game where if you win, you're in. You lose, you're out. And that's the fun part.”