From the moment Canada let a winnable FIBA Americas semifinal game slip away to Venezuela last summer, the senior men's national team was building toward one game.
The painful loss to Venezuela squandered Canada's best shot at qualifying for an Olympics since 2000, an unseemly drought that betrays just how much the Canada Basketball program has come in the last two decades. It left the Canadians with a single route to Brazil, and it ran through five other countries in the form of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Win the whole thing, and there was redemption for 2015. Slip at even one point along the way, and the Olympic drought would extend to at least 20 years.
On Sunday morning, diehard Canadian basketball fans awoke early. Canada had checked every box in the Philippines so far, going 3-0 to earn a berth in the QOT final. This was that one game.
Unfortunately, it came against France, an inevitability that made all but the most guarded optimism tough to come by. France is a basketball powerhouse, armed with Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Nando De Colo, Boris Diaw, Boris Diaw's vintner, Boris Diaw's barista, and Joffrey Lauvergne. Entering the game at 3-0, as well, France was favoured by 7.5 points, and walked out with an 83-74 victory and tickets to Rio.
Canada turned in a spirited effort. Those who opted to participate—a list that was far shorter than it had any right to be given the stakes, the optics, and the would-be searing want for redemption after Mexico—left it all on the court. Cory Joseph continued his transformation into the avatar of what Canada Basketball is and should be, Tristan Thompson fought through understandable fatigue, and Melvin Ejim continued to show why he's one of the most slept-on players outside of the NBA today.
But the Canadians had a painful paucity of shooting, armed with only an ice-cold Brady Heslip to spread the floor. That gummed up driving lanes, and a lack of wing depth allowed Batum to take the Joseph assignment without much fear of mismatches elsewhere, a smothering development. Canada answered every time it took a punch, and got back up when it was knocked down. France was simply a better, more battle-tested team.
"We battled hard," Joseph told reporters after the loss. "We weren't able to get it done. We fought hard and I'm proud of my guys."
There is cause for disappointment, to be sure. A program that's been building momentum since well before general manager Steve Nash's 2005 Most Valuable Player award is still looking to take the most important jump.
"It's obviously disappointing," head coach Jay Triano said. "I have respect for the France team, they're a very good team. There were about four possessions where they hit shots at the end of the shot clock and those seemed to be back-breakers for us, every time we tried to get it close."
Some of the blame will, fairly or otherwise, be directed at Andrew Wiggins, the most notable name to decline to participate. Wiggins opted to focus on his NBA development, which is his right, while Nik Stauskas and Trey Lyles made similar decisions to participate in NBA Summer League with their teams. In his post-tournament presser, Joseph somewhat subtly disagreed with that approach.
"I keep Canada close to my heart. So whenever I get a chance, I take it as I'm being honoured to play for them," he said. "Playing for Canada, we have a great coaching staff. So on the side from the games, I'm still working on my game, still getting better. And there's no better competition that you'll get in the world in the summertime than playing."
Wiggins, Stauskas, and Lyles weren't alone. Kevin Pangos was taking a shot at Summer League, too. Andrew Nicholson and Dwight Powell were free agents held up without official contracts due to the NBA's free agent moratorium. Jamal Murray and Kyle Wiltjer fell in a similar spot as incoming NBA rookies. Kelly Olynyk and Dillon Brooks are injured.
That's a long list. And while the program has continued to churn out an unprecedented amount of NBA-calibre talent, the Canadians were in tough, stripped of most of the country's best players. The Scrubb brothers are CIS legends but probably shouldn't be playing big minutes against the world's elite. Triano's rotation had one effective wing in Ejim, who ideally plays a small four in FIBA competition. Joel Anthony and Levon Kendall were around mostly for veteran leadership.
Those aren't excuses, necessarily, but a means of recalibration. Canada failed to achieve a very difficult goal this week, and its goal became that difficult at its own hands, when it coughed up a far cleaner opportunity last summer. The rising tide of Canadian basketball talent is such that anything but the Olympics is viewed as a failure, and the fact that expectations have perhaps outstripped the actual timeline speaks to just how good a path Canada is on.
It's hard to view things that way immediately after a tough loss and with the next major goal four years down the line (without getting into the mess the new FIBA qualification system is going to create in terms of NBA player participation). But despite Sunday's loss, Canada's momentum doesn't have to be stunted here.
"We're a young team and hopefully we learn and grow from this," Triano said, acknowledging his squad was the youngest in the qualifier. "We're going to keep getting better, we've got some great talent in our country. I appreciate the sacrifices that our players made.
"I think we've got great talent and we've got NBA players and we've got guys that are becoming more and more familiar with the international game. When you can ask our NBA guys to play for their country like they did—especially a guy like Cory... and Tristan, who went to the finals and championship, to still come out, it means a lot for our country. We need to keep getting that experience. "
Triano's message couldn't be more clear. Canada has the talent and the youth to keep getting better. Shai Alexander was on the roster in the Philippines and hasn't even finished high school. R.J. Barrett and Simi Shittu were in camp with the senior team before leading the U-17 team to a fifth-place finish. The pipeline is robust and getting better seemingly by the year. The incredibly exciting senior women's team is in a position to make some serious noise, and even to medal, in August. Meanwhile, this incredibly youthful senior team went through its tune-ups and the tournament losing just two games, both to teams headed for the Olympics, and one of whom (Croatia) it was also able to beat.
What the Canadian team needs to continue to get, and what will be a talking point over the next few years, is consistent commitment. There are rumblings that the loss at the FIBA Americas dampened enthusiasm some, particularly on the sponsorship side. Wiggins and others declining to participate—decisions within their rights, it should be repeated—hurt, and there's a risk it can have a trickle-down effect by sending the wrong message and making the program seem further away from its goal than it actually is.
Sunday was disappointing, and it's going to be a long four years—and an annoying qualification process—waiting for another opportunity. This loss, though, doesn't have to kill the appreciable momentum of Canada Basketball. They just need everyone to take the attitude of Joseph and Thompson when they can.