The last time Team Canada was in the Philippines was in 2016, when they were part of a last-chance qualifying tournament to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The youngest member of that team was a 17-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and although he didn’t play a single minute in the tournament, the experience was a monumental moment in his career.
“I was really young. I didn't play a minute in a game. I was pissed about it,” Gilgeous-Alexander said at training camp for the 2023 FIBA World Cup in Toronto in early August. “I think I learned professional basketball that year. I learned a lot of terminology, the physicality of it, the speed of it. And it for sure was a kickstart to my professional career.”
Canada made it to the finals of that tournament only to lose to France, the No. 5 ranked basketball nation on earth, who has been to three straight Olympics and won silver at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and in the 2022 EuroBasket— the same team that happened to be their opponent on opening day of this summer’s FIBA World Cup.
“Coincidentally enough, seven years later, we're in the World Cup trying to get to the quarterfinals and all the things to qualify for the  Olympics and we will be in the Philippines, and our first game is against France,” Team Canada assistant coach Nathaniel Mitchell explained, alluding to the full-circle nature of Canada’s path over the phone ahead of the tournament.
“We had some of these guys [on that team], but mainly a guy that didn't even play a minute in the tournament, in SGA, who now will probably be one of our best players if not our best player or captain — our best player, basically, going into this tournament against France, trying to qualify for the Olympics in the Philippines.”
Canada came into the most highly anticipated match of the group stage looking for revenge. They not only wanted to beat France for the first time since the 1984 Olympics, but also to set themselves up for a significantly easier path out of the group stages and into the knockout round of this World Cup in the Philippines. And they did that and more, rolling over the French side in a dominant 95-65 win in Indonesia Arena in Jakarta, Indonesia.
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“It felt good,” Gilgous-Alexander said after the game. “Most importantly, we got a dub. We won, did what we came here to do. Still only one game. We got a lot to accomplish and look forward to, but it's a good start.”
Just like Mitchell predicted, it was 25-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder guard Gilgeous-Alexander who led the way for the Canadians, pouring in 27 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists in the game, including 13 points in a third quarter that saw the Canadians outscore the French 25-8 — one of the most dominant and most important quarters in the history of the Canadian men’s national team.
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That might sound like hyperbole, but it was a jittery start in which Team France jumped out to a 7-0 lead and led 18-14 after one quarter. Canada was missing wide-open shots, both Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell got into early foul trouble, and the five-man bench group was getting thoroughly outplayed to close the quarter, meaning things weren’t looking good early for the Canadians. In fact, even Gilgeous-Alexander went scoreless in the opening frame, missing his first five shots of the contest.
The only bright spot of the first quarter was Dillon Brooks, who kept it close with his tone-setting defense and a pair of huge dunks in the early going. However, Canada started to turn things around in the second quarter when Rudy Gobert elbowed Olynyk in the face, leading to an unsportsmanlike foul, two free-throws, the ball, and Gobert’s second foul of the game, forcing the French big man to take a seat on the bench.
Canada went on a 10-3 run during that time, with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Lu Dort coming off the bench to fuel Canada. Thanks to Dort’s feisty defense and Alexander-Walker’s timely three-point shooting Canada went into the halftime break up three, 43-40.
But the third quarter will be one to remember for the ages, especially if Canada goes on to achieve their goals of qualifying for the Olympics through this tournament, as Canada came out of the halftime break with renewed energy on the defensive end.
They out-worked and out-smarted a very experienced French side, fighting over screens and jumping into passing lanes to contest every single dribble and pass the French side made. They held France to just 8 points in the entire quarter while Evan Fournier, who went off to score 19 of France’s 40 points in the first half, was held to just 2 points the rest of the game.
“We played really good basketball today. We did the right things on both ends of the court for the most part of the game. And we know that when we do that and play to our identity and the things that we've been preaching for the last month, that we can beat and play with anyone in the world,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We just got to continue to get better, and the sky's the limit.”
It’s not only that Canada outscored France 25-8 in the frame and never looked back, limiting France to 10-of-31 shooting in the second half and outscoring them 52-25 to complete the blowout — it’s also the way they did it that was most impressive.
Sure, Gilgeous-Alexander led the way with his timely scoring and tough shot-making, but it was a full team effort from the Canadians, playing with pride for their country, sacrificing shots, starring in their roles, and sticking to the game plan by outscoring France 12-2 in fast-break points and 16-6 in second-chance points.
Plus, it was the way Canada made a powerhouse nation like France look downright shook by the end of the game.
Canada bullied France in the paint to win the free-throw battle 27-13 and the rebounding battle 45-35, despite being the significantly smaller team at both frontcourt positions. "We got our ass kicked," was how Fournier put it after the game.
Throughout the whole game, Canada never let up.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) August 25, 2023
“It's always good to be rewarded when you've been working so hard,” Team Canada head coach Jordi Fernandez added. “So I give these guys all the credit in the world. Because when everybody tells you, the outside noise of how good you are, and you work and you show it and you play this hard, you got to enjoy it.”
“But like you say, my job is to get them ready for the next game. I've been in World Cups, Olympics, EuroBaskets, NBA Playoffs. And I think the most important game of your life is your next game. And if we think differently, we're wrong. And we haven't done anything… We know what we are here for and that next game, it's gonna be [the biggest of] our lives.”
Canada will round out their group stage with games against Lebanon on Sunday and Latvia on Tuesday, but it helps to know that they will have the best player on the floor in almost every contest moving forward.
That’s Gilgeous-Alexander, the First-Team All-NBA superstar, who just became the first player to combine for 20+ points, 10+ rebounds and 5+ assists in his debut game at the World Cup over the last 30 years, and the first Canadian player to record a 20-point double-double in a senior men's World Cup game.
He has come a long way from being a lanky teenager who sat on the bench watching his nation lose to France, in the Philippines, seven short years ago.
“You guys can see here a guy that is gonna be the MVP of this World Cup,” Fernandez said of his star, who was sitting beside him at the post-game podium. “But it's, again, just one game. He's gonna do it again next game, and next game, and the next game.”