Team Canada wins bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup
By Zafir Nagji, Contributor
Canada Basketball has always played second fiddle to their American counterparts when it comes to world basketball competitions, whether it be at The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) World Cups or Olympic basketball games. But, after finishing the 2023 FIBA World Cup as bronze medalists with a win over their continental neighbours, is it time to anoint Team Canada as gold medal contenders for the upcoming 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris?
This year’s FIBA World Cup had some notable absences across the competing nations. Absences like Nikola Jokić, a two-time Most Valuable Player (MVP) and reigning Finals MVP for the NBA, who decided to take rest after winning the 2023 NBA Championship with the Denver Nuggets. Team USA also had to field a ‘B-team’ composed of ‘almost’ stars after their own biggest NBA names decided not to compete. Even Jokic’s Canadian teammate, Jamal Murray, couldn’t make it, as he needed to rehabilitate his lingering knee issues.
Despite all that, Canada Basketball was still able to field a lineup of seven NBA players, third most only to Australia, with nine, and the United States, with 12.
The Canadian roster included the likes of NBA All-Star, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, NBA All-Defensive Team member, Dillon Brooks, and world competition veteran, Kelly Olynyk, among many others. The team was coached by Associate Head Coach of the Sacramento Kings, Jordi Fernandez, who was competing in his first FIBA World Cup as the Canadian head coach. Not that anyone would notice, though, as his team posted a 3-1 record in qualifiers and went 4-1 in the group stage. This included a win against Spain, a historic superpower in international basketball competitions, eliminating the European team before the quarter-final rounds.
Canada, on the other hand, advanced to the quarterfinals to face Slovenia, a team led by 24-year-old NBA superstar and fan-favourite, Luka Dončić. The game itself was a heated one, as Dončić complained about bad officiating all game, as did his team following the game. But this was ultimately a sign of frustration after Canada’s Gilgeous-Alexander outscored him 31-26 en route to a 100-89 victory for Canada.
The Canadians then prepared to face off in the semi-finals against the Serbian team, who, despite the absence of Nikola Jokić, had only one less win than Canada up until that point. Taking on a team, whose core roster had barely changed for the last 10 years and included NBA players like Nemanja Bjelica, Nikola Jović, Bojan Bogdanvoić, and his unrelated name-twin, Bogdan Bogdanović, Canada was immediately the underdog in the matchup. As was expected, Serbia’s decade-long chemistry helped them advance to the championship game with a 95-86 win over Canada.
Following their loss to the Serbians, Canada Basketball’s best-case scenario was now a bronze medal. To do so, they would have to get through the team with the most NBA players in the tournament, the United States. Even though it was their secondary team, the Americans still brought a roster that featured NBA All-Stars, Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Brandon Ingram, and Defensive Player of the Year, Jaren Jackson Jr., giving the Canadians their tallest task under the brightest lights they’d faced all tournament long.
And boy, did the Canadians shine.
Houston Rockets guard, Dillon Brooks, played like a man possessed, dropping a game-high 39 points while breaking a Canada Basketball single-game scoring record that hadn’t been reached since 1954. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander chipped in a cool 31 points and even RJ Barrett had himself a game, scoring his tournament-high of 23 points.
The game went into overtime after American, Mikal Bridges, rebounded his own missed free throw and hit a three-point shot with under a second left.
Canada opened up the extra period with a 10-4 run that saw Brooks bully the opposition and back-to-back buckets from the smooth, Gilgeous-Alexander. After forcing a USA backcourt violation, Barrett laced a three-point dagger to put the Canadians up 124-115 with just 44 seconds left. This was enough to officially give Canada the bronze medal— their first medal since 2015.
The big takeaways: without their second-best player, Jamal Murray, the Canadians managed to beat teams that, going into the tournament, were considered better than them. Slovenia’s Dončić was considered the best player going into the tournament until Gilgeous-Alexander outplayed him, and, even though Team USA had the most NBA players attending the tournament, they couldn’t outscore the Canadians.
Overall, the 2023 FIBA World Cup proved that Canadian basketball fans should cheer for their team to not just win a medal, but take home gold in the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Or, if the rumours of an American ‘dream team’ reuniting for a “Last Dance” style run are true, at least silver.