Five NBA players who chose to suit up for Canada just a week before training camps open. A point guard making his first appearance for Canada in five years. A Canadian university product who has come into his own in this newfangled World Cup qualifying system.
Canada’s 85-77 victory over Brazil to open the second round of World Cup qualifying Thursday night spoke volumes about Canadian basketball’s collaborative effort.
“It’s been an absolutely phenomenal ... whatever it is, six days we’ve been together,” a smiling coach Roy Rana said. “From start to finish, these guys have been unbelievable. It’s a close group that’s getting closer as we move through the windows, and that’s exciting.”
Kelly Olynyk had 20 points and 18 rebounds to lead a Canadian team that had six players in double figures. Cory Joseph added 16 points and 10 assists, while Tristan Thompson grabbed 12 boards, Kevin Pangos had 10 points and eight assists, and Aaron Best had 12 points.
“There’s just lot of pride and lots of passion when you put on a Canadian jersey,” said Olynyk. “There’s something about coming home and being able to wear the red and white and Canada across your chest that kind of inspires you. It’s hard to explain, it brings something else out of you.”
Leandro Barbosa, playing like he’d barely lost a step at age 35, led Brazil with 18 points.
Canada (6-1) and Venezuela, which improved to 6-1 with an 84-69 win over the U.S. Virgin Islands, share the top spot in Group F, while Brazil dropped to 5-2.
Canada’s road to the 2019 World Cup is about to get significantly tougher. Rana won’t have any NBA players – Olynyk, Thompson, Joseph, Justin Jackson and Khem Birch played Thursday – nor Pangos, for the team’s final five World Cup qualifying games.
The Canadians make a 19-hour trek to Valdivia, Chile for a sold-out game against the Chileans on Monday, and none of those six players are expected to make the trip.
Rana, however, believes the group he will have will grab the baton and run with it. He spoke about Best, a Raptors 905 player who played for him at Ryerson University. Best, Rana said, has become “one of the great stories of the new (qualifying) format.
“I get pretty emotional because I’ve known him since he was in the 10th grade,” the coach said. “And to see who he’s become ... to see the trust his teammates have put in, guys like Tristan and Kelly and Kevin and Cory, guys who are playing at the highest level, here’s a guy that came up in the Canadian university system, and playing major minutes and big moments and making big plays.
“It’s a great story, and hopefully we have many more of them, because we’re going to need them in our three days in Valdivia, Chile.”
Brazil coach Aleksandar Petrovic said Brazil “had bad luck,” drawing this date against Canada.
“The only game they play with an almost full roster was against Brazli,” Petrovic said, adding it will be a different story when Canada travels to Brazil.
The Canadians took a 22-19 lead into the second quarter in front of 4,512 fans at Place Bell. Tied 26-26 in the second, Olynyk scored nine consecutive points, and the Canadians ended the half with a 15-7 run to take a 40-33 advantage into the break.
Canada was up 50-37 before Brazil battled back to pull to within four points late in the third. Baskets from Thompson and Melvin Ejim sent the Canadians into the fourth quarter with 64-56 lead.
Brazil pulled to within six points with two minutes to play, but Pangos replied with a three-pointer for the Canadians, and added another long bomb with seven seconds on the clock.
The FC Barcelona point guard hadn’t played for Canada for several years because of injury and other commitments, and said “it was a lot of fun” to be back in a Canadian jersey. Olynyk enjoyed having him back as well.
“It was awesome,” Olynyk said. “We talked about it after the game, it was just amazing to be on the same court with each other again, I love playing with Kev, his game and my game complement each other really well.
“Hopefully, we’ll have a little more games together than a five-year hiatus,” he added, with a chuckle.
If there was one negative on the night, it was that the 10,000-seat Place Bell, which sold out last month when R.J. Barrett and Duke played McGill University in an exhibition game, was at about 50 per cent capacity.
Barrett, who made his senior team debut in Canada’s previous two World Cup qualifiers, was in the crowd Thursday. Duke had shut down ahead of hurricane Florence, so Barrett flew to Montreal.
The arena was dotted with a handful of Brazilian fans, including one wearing a Neymar jersey and waving a huge flag.
A fightening moment late in the first quarter saw Birch scratched in the right eye by a driving Barbosa. Birch was very slow to get up before being helped off the court. He didn’t play the rest of the game.
The final two windows see the Canadians play at Venezuela on Nov. 30 and Brazil on Dec. 3. Canada will host Chile on Feb. 21 and Venezuela on Feb. 24.
The World Cup is Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 in China.