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The drought is over. On Sunday in Indonesia, Canada secured its first Olympic men’s basketball berth since 2000 with a thrilling 88-85 victory over Spain at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Needing a win in their group-stage finale to avoid elimination, the Canadian men came through to beat the defending World Cup champions for a spot in the quarterfinals — and, more importantly, earn that trip to next summer’s Olympics in Paris.
Now that its main mission is accomplished, a more relaxed Canadian team can take a free roll at the country’s first-ever World Cup title. In the process, we might get a better idea of its chances of winning Canada’s first Olympic basketball medal since 1936.
Canada’s quarterfinal opponent in the Philippines on Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET is Slovenia, powered by NBA superstar Luka Doncic. The 24-year-old Dallas Mavericks guard ranked second in NBA scoring last season with 32.4 points per game and leads the World Cup with 26.4.
But Canada has its own — and arguably better — young star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The 25-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder guard ranked fourth in NBA scoring last season with 31.4 points per game and placed fifth in MVP balloting — three spots ahead of Doncic. Though the Slovenian put up gaudier numbers (he also averaged 8.6 rebounds and 8.0 assists, compared to 4.8 and 5.5 for Gilgeous-Alexander), some critics viewed him as somewhat of a chucker, compiling empty stats for a disappointing Dallas team that failed to reach the post-season.
WATCH | Canada books ticket to Paris Games with win over Spain:
Gilgeous-Alexander, on the other hand, dragged a written-off Thunder team to a play-in game with his superior efficiency, defensive play and unselfishness. Those traits have all been on display in the World Cup, where Gilgeous-Alexander (23.8 points per game) ranks second in scoring among players who reached the quarterfinals. He was incredible in the must-win against Spain, pouring in a game-high 30 points while going 14 for 16 on free throws, including a cold-blooded 6 for 6 in the final 21 seconds with the game in the balance. SGA might be the best player in this tournament.
If Gilgeous-Alexander and company can clear the Luka obstacle, they’ll face Serbia in the semifinals on Friday. Despite missing the best player in the world as Nikola Jokic chills from his NBA Finals MVP run, the Serbs reached the final four with today’s 87-68 win over Lithuania. Bogdan Bogdanovic, who averaged 14 points for the Atlanta Hawks last season, led the way today with 21 points and is averaging a team-high 18.8 in the World Cup. Serbia was without seldom-used forward Borisa Simanic, who lost a kidney after taking an elbow from a South Sudan player last week.
The other semifinal will pit the United States vs. the winner of Wednesday’s matchup between Germany and Latvia. The Americans remain the clear tournament favourites after bouncing back from a surprising (but mostly meaningless) loss to Lithuania on Sunday by smothering Italy 100-63 today. Brooklyn Net Mikal Bridges was the top scorer for the U.S. with 24 points as coach Steve Kerr emptied his deep bench against an overmatched opponent. Read more about today’s quarterfinals here.
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