Canada achieved “half” of its intended job with its Olympic-clinching victory to close out group play at the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup but the other half lies ahead. As Canada now has its eyes set on tournament gold, the journey begins in the quarterfinals against Slovenia at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 6.
Naturally, discussions surrounding the Slovenian Men’s National Team begin and end with Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic. Doncic is far from a one-man show, but everything that Slovenia does revolves around the 24-year-old wunderkind.
Through five games, Doncic is averaging team highs in points (26.4), rebounds (7.4), and assists (6.8) per game. Fittingly, Canada is the only remaining team with a star that has consistently shined as bright, as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s averages of 23.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists are all team highs.
With Doncic and Gilgeous-Alexander, two of the five members of the 2022-23 All-NBA First Team will be represented but according to Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s much more than their duel.
“It’s a Canada vs. Slovenia game,” Gilgeous-Alexander said when asked if it was a one-on-one duel. That notion will certainly be put to the test as Canada will need a team effort in order to solve the Doncic problem that Slovenia presents. And it’s a complex problem to solve.
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How should Canada guard Luka Doncic?
Typically, this is a tough question. to answer. Fortunately for Canada, the roster features two of the world’s premier perimeter defenders: Dillon Brooks and Luguentz Dort.
While acknowledging that there are stark differences between the FIBA and NBA games, it is worth pointing out that, according to NBA.com Stats’ matchup data, only three players guarded Doncic more than Dort did during the 2022-23 season.
Matchup data is far from perfect, but matching up for 275 partial possessions is nothing short of significant. Doncic, who shot 7 of 20 (35.0 percent) from the field when covered by Dort last season, even went as far as calling him one of the NBA’s top three defenders.
As good as Dort is defensively, his reserve role will make him the primary defender off the bench. As a starter, Brooks will likely get the assignment from the jump, which, considering his All-Defensive status, is not a bad draw for the Canadians.
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There isn’t much recent matchup data to reference with Brooks and Doncic, as Brooks missed the first meeting between Memphis and Dallas last season and Doncic was sidelined for the next three. The two actually haven’t shared the floor since Dec. 8, 2021, a Mavericks win in which Doncic scored efficiently but committed nine turnovers, a third of which came with Brooks as his primary defender.
Both Dort (6-4, 220 pounds) and Brooks (6-7, 225 pounds) have the physical attributes to make Doncic feel them, but as the above clips show, slowing down one of the world’s best talents is a team effort. That will be no different when Canada meets Slovenia.
How will Canada guard Luka Doncic?
Players of Doncic’s caliber are inevitable. Regardless of the strategy, plot, or scheme, Doncic is going to find a way to impact the game with either his scoring, playmaking, or both.
Canada is going to have to pick its poison.
Slovenia’s greatest tests at this World Cup have come in its most recent two games — an 11-point win over Australia and a 29-point loss to Germany.
In the win over Australia, Doncic attempted just nine field goals but shot 9 of 10 from the free throw line to finish with 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. The greatest beneficiary of those assists was 7-foot center Mike Tobey, who scored seven of his 18 points off of Doncic’s creation.
Therein lies the problem. Limiting Doncic’s usage as a scorer opens the door for him to be more of a playmaker, which gets his supporting cast going.
In Slovenia’s loss to Germany, Doncic finished with 23 points and six assists but did so by shooting 9 of 22 from the field and 2 of 11 from 3-point range. Slovenia’s next-leading scorer was Klemen Prepelic, who had 12 points, while Tobey was limited to just four points on four shots.
For Canada, it will be imperative to not allow Doncic’s supporting cast to find its footing early on. It’s not as simple as just letting Doncic thrive as a scorer — that could be just as detrimental — but it forces Doncic to bear more responsibility, which, coupled with the physicality of Canada’s perimeter defenders, could be a tiring task.
Given the heavy pick-and-roll element, Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell will play critical roles on defense. Germany’s approach was more switch-reliant while Australia was quicker to blitz Doncic in order to get the ball out of his hands.
So, what should Canada do? Quite frankly, there’s no right answer. There’s no wrong answer either.
As Gilgeous-Alexander alluded to, no one player can win a game on their own. By no means should Canada let Doncic dominate as a scorer while shutting others down, but it is important to acknowledge that Doncic is going to have a big scoring night regardless of what you throw at him.
If Canada’s duo of Brooks and Dort can make Doncic work for what he gets offensively and the rest of the team can outshine Doncic’s supporting cast, Canada will have a great chance to advance to the semifinals.
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