Canadians riding the wave of unprecedented success by our men’s national team at the FIBA World Cup will have to sacrifice some sleep to keep following along.
Canada and Serbia will clash in a semifinal matchup on Friday in Manila at 4:45 a.m. ET.
That means an early wakeup call for much of the country, while many out West could be pulling all-nighters to catch the action.
Regardless, this isn’t a contest hoops fans will want to sleep through.
Canada has played at World Cups (formerly known as the FIBA World Championship) since 1954, but Wednesday’s 100-89 win over Slovenia marked the first time a Canadian men’s squad has advanced to the semis at this competition.
While Serbia doesn’t have an all-world talent like Slovenia’s Luka Doncic — two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic isn’t playing this summer following Denver’s run to the title (coincidentally, neither is his Nuggets co-star, Canadian standout Jamal Murray) — Serbia is considered a stronger overall squad than Slovenia and clobbered a good Lithuanian team 87-68.
Serbia, ranked No. 6 in the world, has made the final four at three of the past four World Cups, including a gold-medal-game loss in 2014. Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic has been on a tear and will have to be watched closely, along with Miami Heat forward Nikola Jovic.
The team has shot a tournament-best 55% from the field (Canada ranks seventh at 50%), including a blistering 68% on two-point attempts.
Serbia has also taken care of the ball better than any other squad at the competition, which potentially is an issue. Canada loves to force turnovers and also doesn’t foul much (only Japan committed fewer fouls per game), which will be interesting since Canada loves to draw contact.
The Serbian team also has been inspired by the loss of forward Borisa Simanic, who lost a kidney after being hurt in a game earlier in the tournament.
While Serbia and Canada have never met in an official game, there is a long history of big contests between Canada and the former Yugoslavia, which both Serbia and Slovenia were a part of. Yugoslavia beat Canada 88-82 in the bronze-medal game of the 1984 Olympics and again in the quarterfinals in 1988.
Steve Nash led Canada to a victory in the 2000 Olympics, the previous time Canada made the Games (right before a heartbreaking knockout round loss against France). Canada fell to FR Yugoslavia (which was comprised of Serbia and Montenegro) at the 2002 World Cup.
Toronto also only got the right to host the 1994 World Cup when Belgrade, the Serbian capital, was barred from doing so by the United Nations due to the ongoing Bosnian War.
It’s not yet time to conclude the history lesson, because what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has accomplished so far needs to be put into perspective, too.
The Canadian superstar has averaged 25 points a game, including 31, plus 10 rebounds against Slovenia. He has done a little bit of everything and has arguably been the best player at the entire tournament — and certainly Canada’s top performer since Nash.
As the equally outstanding Doncic said after their quarterfinal meeting: “They have one of the best players in the world, so it was really tough to guard him.”
With at least 20 more points, Gilgeous-Alexander would pass Jay Triano and trail only Leo Rautins for the most points by a Canadian at a World Cup (and both Rautins and Triano — who would go on to coach Canada — did it in 10 games, while the Thunder guard has only played six so far).
Gilgeous-Alexander has outscored entire teams in a quarter three times already at this event. And against Slovenia he also skied for key rebounds, defended and found open teammates. He also is the first player since the 1994 event to score 30 points in a game on fewer than 12 shots (per TSN), and he has done it twice.
In short, he has been spectacular.
RJ Barrett also stepped up against Slovenia, as did Dillon Brooks, but Canada will probably need more from its big men against Serbia, a team with more size and better rim protection than Slovenia.
Canada out-rebounded Slovenia 38-30 and had a 23-7 advantage in fast-break points. It likely won’t be as easy to produce similar numbers against this team. Serbia has a clear size advantage on Canada, particularly if head coach Jordi Fernandez opts to go small again, a move that has been quite successful.
Canada takes the fight to Slovenia and advances to FIBA World Cup semifinal
Germany holds off Latvia and will next play Team USA in FIBA World Cup semifinals
Still, Canada will again have an athleticism advantage, two all-world defenders to throw at Bogdanovic in Brooks and Lu Dort, and the ultimate difference-maker in Gilgeous-Alexander.
“It’s just a drive to win,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of his play in the clutch. “That’s what we come here for. That’s why I play basketball. That’s why the team plays basketball. That’s why you should play basketball. To win games at the highest level. Whatever it takes to do so at the end of the game is what myself and the rest of the guys try to do.”
If they can do it again, a likely date with the United States (which takes on Germany later Friday) in the final awaits.