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Lacking star power, Team Canada shows it still can be dangerous by hitting three balls

Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse talks to media at a press conference on Sunday June 16, 2019. (Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)
Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse talks to media at a press conference in this file photo. (Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network) - Postmedia News

Forgive Nick Nurse if he winds back the second quarter of Wednesday night’s exhibition win over No. 33-ranaked Nigeria and plays it on a loop.

It’s the best template for how Canada can make some noise at the World Basketball Championships which begin later this month in China.

Canada’s 96-87 win started off rather slowly with the hosts hitting just four of 17 first-quarter shots as they fell behind early 20-14.

But that second quarter was exactly the game Canada has to play. Ball movement got the opposition’s defence moving and then hitting from the outside as it did with regularity in that quarter.

Led by three three-pointers from each of Kyle Wiltjer and Brady Heslip in the quarter, Canada was a stellar 9-for-13 from distance.

With all the no-shows from the NBA types for Canada, a couple of whom were in attendance to show support for their country, the create-your-own shot ability just isn’t in abundance for Canada, so it’s going to mean an even bigger onus on the three-point shooting, something a Nick Nurse team would have anyway but only moreso now.

“It was pretty good considering the short amount of time we had,” Nurse said of the overall effort. “You see flashes, right, I hate to be a broken record but there was probably 16,18 minutes of really good and now it’s my job to extend that out and keep pushing those minutes out and pushing those minutes.”

That ‘broken record’ reference is a familiar one because it was exactly what Nurse was saying for much of the early part of the Raptors’ championship season.

“I think there were some stretches,” Nurse said referring to really good basketball. “You’re going to see, clearly, when we move the ball and cut hard, we’re going to get shots. Even the first quarter I thought we were moving hard and swinging the ball and we didn’t make any. That doesn’t ever bother me, when the shots you’re generating are good, taken by the right guys, etc. Then in the second quarter, the same thing happened, they started going in, a little momentum goes in and you break the game open and that’s kind of the way we want to play.”

Wiltjer got hot and hit three in a row to get that second quarter run starter before Heslip, who didn’t see the floor in the first quarter came in and hit his first three from behind the arc.

That success from behind the arc spurred Canada to a 36-21 edge in the quarter and put them on the way to a win.

“He gives us a lot of creative freedom,” Wiltjer said of Nurse. “He pushes us to play really hard on defence, but also just on offence just getting in attack mode and using his system and just playing for each other and playing unselfish. And as long as we’re playing unselfish, he can live with a missed shot, stuff like that, so it’s a really fun way to play basketball, no pressure out there, it’s just playing basketball.”

Wiltjer finished with 14 points on the night, 12 of them on four three-pointers.

He was matched in the scoring department by Khem Birch, who also had 14, including a nice finish on a lob from Cory Joseph that he slammed home bringing the crowd of about 3,000 to their feet at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.

Nurse started the game with team captain Joseph and Kevin Pangos in the backcourt with a frontcourt of Olynyk, Melvin Ejim and Birch.

It’s his likely starting five assuming health once the team gets to China.

Heath though could be in question, particularly for Olynyk, one of the mainstays of this Canadian senior men’s program. Early in the third quarter Olynyk appeared to slip and came down heavily on his knee. When a Nigerian opponent attempted to help him up, Olynyk got to his feet initially but could not hold the weight and went right back down to the court.

Olynyk eventually did get up but was taken out of the game and went straight back to the Team Canada locker room.

The team was still waiting on word about the severity of the injury.

“He’s going to get x-rays so I guess we’ll find out here shortly, or find out in the morning,” Canadian head coach Nick Nurse said. “Hopefully he’s OK, it was kind of a slippery spot he hit on the floor as he took off and he went down. We cross our fingers and wait on that one.”

The Canadian team has one more practice here in Toronto on Thursday before heading to Winnipeg for a second exhibition with this same Nigerian team that boasts five members with NBA experience including Al-Farouq Aminu who was probably the most accomplished player on the floor Wednesday night.

TOUGH GOING FOR BOUCHER

The look of Canada’s front court may be changing before the team even leaves the country in advance of the late August World Cup of Basketball.

Chris Boucher, the reigning G-League MVP and a member of the Raptors’ bench for much of this past season was a healthy scratch for last night’s first exhibition game.

Boucher, who is a very good scorer but lacks in the kind of size Canada expects it will need once it gets to China, could be the odd man out as the team has brought in 6-foot-10, 225-pound Owen Klassen who plays in the Belgian league to add a little more bulk to their frontcourt.

Nurse though was not announcing any official change last night.

“Just inactive tonight and we’re going to evaluate where we are tomorrow,” he said when asked about Boucher. “I think, obviously, we did bring another big in. We think with the way we’ve ended up so far, we’ve got Khem (Birch) as a real good solid centre and we may need one more. Kelly (Olynyk) can certainly play the five but is kind of a stretch five exclusively.

“So we’re going to look at Owen as well,” Nurse said. “He’s another big, banging defender and kind of go from there.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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