Last week they polished off a couple games against Japan, this week the Tall Blacks got some very useful preparation in against the might of Canada, going back to back in Aussie for a pair of friendly friendlies. Canada may have won both but the two games served up drastically different vibes and the lessons available to the Tall Blacks from this mini-series could be immensely handy going into the World Cup.
Speaking of which, we now have a settled 12-man roster for that World Cup after Paul Henare and his team chatted deep into the night over a few whiskeys and cut the final two fellas from the squad. No surprises to find those two players were Tom Vodanovich and Taine Murray given neither had barely featured during these last four games (just some garbage time in G1 vas Canada, basically). Murray was really only there as a development fella anyway, and frankly it makes more sense for the balance of the team to have Tohi Smith-Milner and Jordan Ngatai than Vodanovich – meaning TV can now head back to Aotearoa and meet up with his Breakers teammates as they build into the new NBL season. Dan Shamir shan’t be too upset at that eventuality. Always helps a director of basketball to have more basketballers to direct and with five Breakers players in this Tall Blacks World Cup squad he’s got it tough enough as it is.
Here’s the final squad within a generalised depth chart based on these recent games:
PG: TAI WEBSTER | SHEA ILI | JARROD KENNY
SG: COREY WEBSTER | ETHAN RUSBATCH
SF: TOM ABERCROMBIE | JORDAN NGATAI
PF: ISAAC FOTU | FINN DELANY
C: ROB LOE | ALEX PLEDGER | TOHI SMITH-MILNER
So the first game against Canada then… absolute mess. Canada are a fascinating side because they’re nowhere near the strength they should be. You could pick an entire squad of NBA players who aren’t available for this tournament for their own various reasons and if that squad were going to China then we’d be talking about a team that ought to make the semi-finals. The rising swell of basketball developing in Canada these days is unprecedented for that nation, highlighted by the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA title and Canadian ballers are spread out across that league (Chris Boucher was the only Canadian in the Raptors title-winning squad). Think of the likes of Jamal Murray, Cory Joseph, RJ Barrett, Kelly Olynyck, Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Dwight Powell, Trey Lyes, Naz Mitrou-Long… yeah none of them are in this squad though. Cory Joseph might still go to the World Cup but there are conflicting reports over that one (the coach says he’ll be there, for what it’s worth, so that’s encouraging).
But they do have the reigning NBA champion head coach Nick Nurse calling plays and based on what we saw here that’s not something to be slept on. Canada had already come out and given the Aussie Boomers some headaches over their own two-game series, with Canada pumping them 90-70 in the first game. Barcelona guard Kevin Pangos scored an influential 18 points as the Boomers missed some decent looks, pretty uncharacteristic for them. Certainly a wake-up call for the competition as the Canadians emerged with some excellent team basketball, picking out instinctive passes on offence while communicating sharply at the other end. Australia are a team plotting on at least making the semi-finals at the World Cup though, so you knew they’d bounce back and sure enough they got there with an 81-73 win in the second game even though they had to work hard for it.
And in a lot of ways the narrative was similar when the Tall Blacks played Canada. The first game was uncharacteristically bad for the Tall Blacks. It’s one thing to have an off shooting night, it happens to everyone, but to be so poor defensively was a shocker. They clearly didn’t pay enough attention to what Canada did against Australia because the TBs were rocked from opening tipoff. Canada played at a pace the Tall Blacks weren’t comfortable defending and those extra passes continued to pick out open fellas which then led to a magnificent shooting night for the Canucks (they hit 44% as a team from deep and that was after they cooled down in the second half) who dropped 35 points on the kiwis in the opening ten minutes. Nick Nurse’s team scored the first ten points of the game, before New Zealand rallied to lead 13-12, then immediately Canada went on a 20-0 run that established a lead they never even came close to losing.
It’s worth saying that Shea Ili is out with a groin injury at the moment – everyone’s hopeful he’ll be a hundy percent by the start of the World Cup, just didn’t wanna risk anything – so there went one of the Tall Blacks’ better defenders. Plus of course the absences of Mika Vukona and Reuben Te Rangi were always going to have a severe effect on that end. But still… the Tall Blacks were getting outdone for effort and enthusiasm here and that’s pretty simply the opposite of what this team prides itself on. Not to mention that Canada were swarming the boards, leaving the kiwis looking slower, weaker, smaller, and even a little bit lost along the way.
Canada would have ten different fellas score at least eight points, going on to win it 122-88. Which, you know, adds up to a not-completely-awful offensive performance from NZ although that has to be qualified by the scoreboard pressure. Same goes for how they attempted 46 three pointers in the game. Clearly way too much… but that was in the context of playing from well behind a lot of the way. Pleasingly Rob Loe made five triples while Corey Webster came to life in the second half with a few of his own after a poor start from him. Isaac Fotu was probably the best of the Tall Blacks. Alex Pledger also missed this game with illness by the way.
But you live and you learn, right? Paul Henare’s side had the opportunity here to make immediate amends the very next night and you’d better believe they did, buddy. After giving up 35 points in the opening quarter of the first game they led 23-13 at quarter time of the second. 22 fewer points conceded in the opening frame and the difference was clear to see. Much better energy, knowing exactly what to expect from their opponents and not allowing them the easy ones. As a direct response to that, with an added touch of cosmic benevolence, the Canadians were suddenly missing shots that they were knocking down with their eyes closed a night earlier, while the Tall Blacks were moving the ball much better and evading the hungry double/triple teaming Canadian defence to manoeuvre into cleaner looks.
Having said that, Canada didn’t need twenty four hours to figure things out, they ramped up their defensive focus again in the second quarter and as a few more shots went down they quickly closed the gap. Big issue for the Tall Blacks, and for most teams really, is how to manufacture points when you really need them. Tai Webster’s eye was off as he missed all six of his triples and it wasn’t until the dying stages of this game that he was able to get to the hoop with any sense of regularity. Similarly getting the ball to a crowded-out Isaac Fotu is not an easy task particularly when the shooters aren’t nailing them. But Rob Loe was again nice and solid on offence and Corey Webster picked up where he left off the night before with a 33-point vintage performance. Not always clinical but crucially he took it upon himself to carry that scoring burden and he made some cluuuutch shots when it matted most. Which is exactly what we wanna see from the lad. Beautiful stuff.
The issue here is that a Tall Blacks side that isn’t going to be able to rely on the transcendent talent of some of the other nations they’ll come up against (e.g. Giannis Antetokounmpo for Greece) can’t really afford too many players off their game at once and getting the maximum number of dudes to be in-form at the right time is a difficult balancing act. Tom Abercrombie scored nine combined points in these two games, fouling out in the second one. The Webster Bros were inconsistent, particularly Tai (though they were also instrumental in overturning a 10-point deficit in the fourth to take game two into overtime). It might be one of those ones you just cross your fingers and hope things align nicely at the World Cup.
One thing’s for sure though, this second game was utterly invaluable experience. A close game like this where you get to run through your fourth quarter sets against a decent opposition is a situation you cannot simulate in training. The Tall Blacks didn’t win. They missed some free throws late on and got blown out early in overtime. Canada scored the first seven points of bonus basketball, all of a sudden looking like they couldn’t miss and I guess that’s when their top tier coaching really shone. But those crucial group stage games against Brazil and Montenegro in the group stage have the potential to come down to the same fine margins a game like this. Even understrength the Tall Blacks were able to show what they’re capable of in the last few plays of a tight game – Corey Webster’s and-one finish and Finn Delany’s block at the rim especially – and you can’t ask for better preparation than that, regardless of the end result.
No doubt there’s lots to learn from these games and lots still to improve. That’s always the case with a major tournament on the horizon though, when all those processes zip into hyperspeed, and with their squad now finalised the Tall Blacks fly on to China where they’ll take part in a four-team warm-up tournament with games against France, Serbia, and Italy. Three more extremely strong teams to test themselves against before it all gets tantalisingly real.
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