Canada has gone head up with some of FIBA's best at the World Cup but faces its biggest test yet in sixth-ranked Serbia on Friday.
Here are five things to know ahead of Canada's semifinal game:
The 15th-ranked Canadian men have shown how things can look when the team is able to gather some of its best talent on one team.
Canada made it to the second round of the tournament for the first time since 1998 after winning its first two games of the group phase. After finishing 3-0, they placed first in the group phase for the first-time ever.
Canada's win over top-ranked defending champion Spain on Sunday made way for a direct qualification the Paris 2024 Games, ending an Olympic drought dating back to 2000. It was also the first time since 1994 that Canada advanced to the quarterfinals.
Facing Serbia in its first-ever World Cup semifinal (Friday, 4:45 a.m. ET), Canada now has a chance to secure its first-ever medal with a win and entry into the final.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the best player at the tournament. The 25-year-old all-NBA first team guard is the third-leading scoring at the tournament (25.0) and also leads Canada in rebounds (7.2) and assists (5.0).
Gilgeous-Alexander only has one game with less than 20 points — 12 in a 55-point win over Lebanon in the first round — and has been the engine behind Canada's 5-1 record and historic run through the competition.
Fellow all-NBA first team guard Luka Doncic lauded the Hamilton native as "one of the best players in the world" after Canada ousted Slovenia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. Gilgeous-Alexander had game highs of 31 points — 18 in the second half — and 10 rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting in the contest.
Bogdan Bogdanovic has only built on his star and legacy on the world stage through this tournament. The Atlanta Hawks guard has climbed from 52nd to 17th on the all-time World Cup scoring list, while averaging 18.8 points per game.
With 404 points to his name and having passed the late great Drazen Petrovic, the 31-year-old Bogdanovic just needs 21 points to surpass German great and Basketball Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki next.
Barring any roadblocks in Serbia's next two games, Bogdanovic could crack the top 12 by the end of the competition, needing 44 points to do so.
Serbia sits only behind the U.S. atop the tournament leaders in scoring — 98.2 and 101.2 per game. And it's all being done without its best player — and arguably best in the world — centre Nikola Jokic. The two-time NBA MVP sat out to rest after the Denver Nuggets won the NBA title in June.
However, the team has used an offence that thrives on movement — both of the ball and players off the ball — as well as the pick-and-roll game to dominate much of the tournament. Serbia is also second among the four semifinalists, allowing just 74.7 points across six games.
While Serbia has speed, it also presents a lot of size issues. On its 12-man roster, Serbia only has three players shorter than six-foot-six, with the smallest being six-foot-four. Led by seven-foot centre Nikola Milutinov — who is averaging 13.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game — a small-ball lineup like the one used at points against Slovenia may be more challenging for Canada to utilize.
Canada head coach Jordi Fernandez never shied away from pointing out Canada's inexperience on the FIBA level. Fernandez — who replaced Nick Nurse on June 28 — has also always made it known Canada would have to get better every step of the process in order to succeed.
But with almost every test, Canada has passed. And it may be attributed to how close the team is.
Multiple players mentioned the ties that exist between them from their younger days during training camp in August. Following the win over Slovenia, forward RJ Barrett said the team has shown it's a hard-working group and one that competes with a common goal. But he also spoke of the team's bond.
"It's been incredible since Day 1," he said. "All the guys, we all enjoy each other, we all enjoy hanging out. Through every practice, through every game, wins, losses, we always stuck together. It's a special group of guys and it's very exciting. It's an honour to be on this team."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023.
Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press