Canada's NBA footprint keeps growing


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Three Canadians are playing prominent roles in the second round of the playoffs, a fourth made some noise before bowing out, and another just finished fifth in MVP voting. Let’s unpack:

Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett are still in the title hunt.

Of the three, Murray’s chances of winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy look the best. His Denver Nuggets are the top seed in the Western Conference and are up 2-0 on Phoenix, which might be without point guard Chris Paul for a while due to a groin injury. Denver also features arguably the best player in the world in Nikola Jokic, the two-time MVP centre who’s averaging close to 28 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists in the post-season. Murray is proving to be an excellent sidekick, averaging 25.7 points in his return to the playoffs after a knee injury ruined his past two seasons.

Wiggins’ Golden State Warriors lost Game 1 to the Lakers last night as L.A. big man Anthony Davis dominated with 30 points, 23 rebounds, five assists and four blocks. But the Warriors’ bid to repeat as NBA champs is very much alive with Steph Curry still at the top of his game and Wiggins looking solid since his return from a two-month leave of absence. He’s averaging 17.8 points in the playoffs, a slight uptick from his regular-season production.

Barrett’s New York Knicks are a long shot, but the Eastern Conference appears more wide open than expected with top-seeded Milwaukee eliminated in the first round, defending East champion Boston looking a bit shaky and Philadelphia’s newly crowned NBA MVP Joel Embiid missing games with a knee injury. Embiid is expected back tonight as the 76ers try to go up 2-0 on the Celtics, but Miami star Jimmy Butler has an ankle injury that kept him out of Game 2 in New York last night. The Knicks won it to even the series as Barrett scored 24. He’s averaging close to 20 in the playoffs.

Dillon Brooks went down swinging.

Perhaps a bit too literally, as the pesky forward was ejected from Game 3 of the Grizzlies’ first-round series vs. the Lakers for hitting LeBron James in the groin. After going down in six, Memphis reportedly told Brooks that they won’t be bringing the pending free agent back. He did himself no favours by shooting a miserable 31 per cent while annoying many people with his antics during the Lakers series, but Brooks should be able to find a niche somewhere if he can sand down some of his rougher edges.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander placed fifth in the MVP race.

The 24-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder guard established himself as a true rising star by averaging 31.4 points — fourth-most in the league — and joining Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30 points, five assists, four rebounds, one steal and one block per game in a season.

Despite OKC’s failure to reach the main playoff bracket (they lost in the second play-in round), Gilgeous-Alexander finished fifth in MVP balloting after receiving six fourth-place votes and 28 fifth-place votes. He placed ahead of such luminaries as Steph Curry and Luka Doncic, and joined two-time MVP Steve Nash as the only Canadians ever to receive votes. SGA was also a finalist for the Most Improved Player award, which went to Utah’s Lauri Markkanen.

This all bodes well for Canada’s Olympic hopes.

With Gilgeous-Alexander, Murray, Wiggins, Barrett and OKC’s Lu Dort potentially leading the way and guys like Brooks, Indiana rookie Bennedict Mathurin and Utah veteran Kelly Olynyk providing depth, the Canadian men’s team has a great chance to earn its first trip to the Olympics since Nash took his team to the quarterfinals in 2000.

That can be accomplished at this summer’s Basketball World Cup in Asia, where the top two finishers from the Americas region will get tickets to the 2024 Paris Olympics. One of those will almost certainly go to the United States, but the other is very much up for grabs. Argentina made the 2021 Olympics despite having zero notable NBA players. Canada can field a whole team of them — provided they show up.

The World Cup draw was held last weekend, and Canada landed in a group with France, Latvia and Lebanon. The French took silver at the Tokyo Olympics, and they expect to add Victor Wembanyama — the slam-dunk No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft — to their roster. The top two teams in each group advance to the quarter-finals.

If coach Nick Nurse and his Canadian team don’t earn an Olympic spot at the World Cup, they’ll have to win one of the last-chance qualifying tournaments right before the Games. That path led to ruin last time, as a Wiggins-led team lost to the Czech Republic in the semifinals on home court in Victoria. Read more about Canada’s World Cup route here.

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