Canada versus Spain was billed to be the game of the tournament before the opening ceremonies for the 2023 FIBA World Cup even began.
After all, there was no shortage of storylines to follow: NBA talent versus international experience, Jordi Fernandez versus his former team and boss, and the up-and-coming Canadians versus the established No. 1 program in the world.
Plus, with the way the final day of the group stage day played out — with three teams from the Americas getting knocked out of the competition — the stakes were at an all-time high: Win and Canada would not only book a spot in their first World Cup quarterfinal since 1994, but also their first Olympic bid since 2000. Lose and they would go home.
But for the group of Canadian men that came together inside a Las Vegas boardroom last summer to sign on for a three-year commitment to the national team, losing was never an option. Sure, they would be tested by an experienced Spanish team that had two double-digit leads in the second half alone. Still, Canada proved to be the more resilient, desperate bunch on Sunday, coming back to defeat Spain 88-85 in a watershed moment for Canadian basketball, booking a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals and the 2024 Olympic Games.
After years of coming up short and learning from their heartbreaking failures, the Canadians took what was theirs, deciding that they would no longer be the little brothers of international basketball — that they were ready for their moment in the sun.
only two outcomes for team canada today pic.twitter.com/6It5APiSlZ
— alex (@steven_lebron) September 3, 2023
“There was a lot of adversity,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said after the game. “But I think our group just wanted it a little bit more. We knew what was at stake and we were willing to do whatever it took. And we ended up getting it done.”
Adversity is an understatement. After losing a heartbreaker to an undermanned Brazilian team two days earlier in what looked to foreshadow another disappointing early exit for the program, Canada had a chance to right their wrongs against Spain.
Getting off to another slow start, falling into an 18-12 hole early in the first quarter, complicated matters in short order. Canada would even it out at 21 a piece by the end of the quarter, with RJ Barrett bouncing back from a disappointing showing against Brazil to score seven of Canada's final nine points in the frame, and 11 of their 21 total points in the quarter.
Canada was getting stops and running in transition, playing to their offensive identity to start of the second quarter, but a lack of discipline led them into early foul trouble and rebounding woes. In fact, the Canadians struggled to contend with the physicality and size of Spain’s frontcourt, with Willie Hernangomez feasting to the tune of 18 points in the first half alone — two more than the 16 he averaged per game in the tournament coming into the contest.
Canada’s veterans had defensive breakdown after defensive breakdown as they played from behind chasing Spain’s polished attack. Their sloppy first half was exacerbated when RJ Barrett and Dillon Brooks each picked up their third fouls of the game in the second quarter, with Brooks elbowing Hernangomez in the head and receiving an unsportsmanlike foul after Spain’s Alex Abrines made his third three-point shot of the half — a series that would result in a seven-point play for the Spaniards.
Despite Gilgeous-Alexander and Barrett combining to score 24 of Canada’s 38 first-half points, Canada was down 48-38 at the half.
Following a series of adjustments, Canada surged out of the half, erasing that 10-point lead with a 14-4 run to tie the game at 52 within the first five minutes of the third quarter, with the basketball Gods rewarding them in the referee department. After Canada struggled with foul trouble in the first half, Spain picked up three fouls within the opening minute of the second half, and six fouls within the opening 2:30. That allowed Canada to get to the free throw line on every foul call going forward while simultaneously forcing Spain to play less physical on the defensive end to not racking up any more fouls.
But Spain’s second unit stormed back at the end of the third, with Memphis Grizzlies forward Santi Aldama leading the way as he scored 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three. The Spanish bench was pivotal throughout the second half, outscoring Canada’s reserves 38-8 in the contest, highlighted by an 11-0 run to close the third quarter up 73-61.
Still, Canada would not give up. After already overcoming one double-digit deficit in the second half, Canada ratcheted up their defence to a level we hadn’t seen from them all tournament — and perhaps in the history of the Canadian program — holding Spain scoreless for the first four minutes of the period and to just 12 points in the entire fourth quarter, pulling out stop after stop to slowly inch their way back into the contest.
Starting centre Dwight Powell was critical as a switch-defender and rebounder, playing over Kelly Olynyk for most of the game, while Lu Dort and Brooks fought hard to contain the point of attack to get crucial stops and grab five rebounds each. Brooks had his best offensive showing of the tournament, too, scoring 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting, 3-of-3 from three, including a massive triple with less than two minutes remaining in the contest.
— FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 🏆 (@FIBAWC) September 3, 2023
“It was special. One for the books,” Gilgeous-Alexander said about Brooks’ performance, which Brooks himself said was the best of his career given the stakes. “He’s a leader. He does the right things on the basketball floor and he plays with the right energy. He's the guy that you always want on your team.
“Things haven't been going his way the whole tournament — the past whole month and a half. But he's had the right energy. He's done the right things for the team. And he was rewarded tonight by the Basketball Gods.”
But it was Gilgeous-Alexander himself who deserves the bulk of the credit for willing Canada to the win. After providing steady scoring throughout the game against a locked-in Spanish defense, mostly on “Europe’s best perimeter defender” Alberto Diaz, Gilgeous-Alexander took over in the final two minutes. First, he galavanted his way into the lane, using his non-traditional herky-jerky style to get the Spanish defenders off-balance and executing an impressive and-one layup to bring Canada within one, 78-77, with less than two minutes left.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 11 points in the final 1:51 of this close win. That was incredibly clutch.
Canada moves on. pic.twitter.com/TOge609olP
— Nick Crain (@CrainNBA) September 3, 2023
Then, after Brooks put Canada in the driver's seat with a three, Gilgeous-Alexander hit one of the most important shots in Canadian basketball history, creating separation before stepping back to hit a long two-pointer with less than 45 seconds remaining to take the 82-80 lead. He then made all six of his free throws to end the game and send Canada through to their first Olympics in 24 years.
The biggest shot in Canada Basketball history. Truly, a Canadian Heritage Moment pic.twitter.com/PyIqtfyifN
— Jonathan Chen (@jonathancchenn) September 3, 2023
“Shai. Yeah, definitely. No doubt in my mind,” Fernandez said at practice on Saturday when asked who he would trust to put the team on their back if they needed it. “He's our guy. Like I said before, we don't need one player to try to win the game on his own. [But] that's just his role on the team.”
For the third time in five games, Gilgeous-Alexander outscored an entire team in a quarter, outscoring Spain 13-12 in the fourth quarter after doing the same against France and Latvia. Fernandez called him the future MVP of the tournament, and after averaging 24-7-5-2 with just 1.4 turnovers through the first five games, he is certainly in the driver's seat for the award if Canada can continue winning.
“He was amazing,” Brooks said of the sharpshooting Gilgeous-Alexander. “He was composed all game. They were throwing everything at him: From box-and-one to double teams. He was patient in getting his buckets and finding guys with assists, getting crucial steals.
“He had an overall great performance and we need that every single game.”
Canada will fly to Manilla, Philippines to take on Luka Doncic and Team Slovenia in the quarterfinals at 8:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday, September 6th. If they win, they play the winner of Lithuania/Serbia on September 8th in what would be their first semifinal matchup in World Cup history.
As we think about what could be next year at the Olympics, here's what the quarterfinals bracket now looks like at the #FIBAWC:
Italy vs. USA (8:40am ET Tuesday)
Germany vs. Latvia (4:45am Wednesday)
Lithuania vs. Serbia (4:45am Tuesday)
Canada vs. Slovenia (8:30am Wednesday) pic.twitter.com/vsEDfABsQx
— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) September 3, 2023
And that is exactly where Canada’s focus is. While it’s an exciting, historic moment for the program to make it through to the Olympics for the first time since 2000, it's only a fraction of what Canada hopes to do in the week to come.
“We wanted to go to the Olympics and we wanted to get gold in this tournament,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after the win. “Half of our job’s done. We have a lot more to do, a lot more work to put in. So, half our goals are completed.
“Going to the Olympics, it's very special. It's very special for the program,” Fernandez added. “But now we have to keep thinking [about] the next game. We have three more games to go. We didn't come here just to go to the Olympics… we want to make sure that everybody knows that we're knocking at the door and that we're thirsty for more.
“And that goes with getting better and believing that you can still be better. We're young. We haven't played together… But we had a lot of adversity and we had to go through it. So, that room for improvement is there. And we should be up there as a program for many, many years if we keep doing this.”
Canada is going to the World Cup quarterfinals and the 2024 Olympic Games. But just as importantly, they are no longer the little brother of international basketball. In fact, they are coming for the throne. And they will be for many decades to come.