MANILA, Philippines — In a game years in the making, Team USA and Team Canada are finally playing for a basketball medal.
It wasn’t supposed to be a bronze, which is what the two North American powers will compete for Sunday (4:45 a.m. ET, ESPN+). But while both teams were upset in the FIBA World Cup semifinals Friday, there is also a realization that this could be the start of a rivalry.
“They haven’t won a medal since the 1930s, so they’re coming for us,” Tyrese Haliburton said Saturday. “I think both of our countries will expect to see each other for the coming years. So it seems like this is kind of the start.”
The Canadians have never won a medal in the World Cup, and their only Olympic medal in basketball came in 1936 in Berlin, a silver. But over the past decade, there has been a steady influx of Canadian talent into the NBA led by first-team All-NBA pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Canada qualified for the Paris Olympics based on its play in Manila, the first time it has qualified since 2000. The United States, which has won the past four Olympic golds, could see Canada next summer in France.
And then, as the Canadian basketball pipeline expands, perhaps numerous times into the future.
Naturally there is a threat of a letdown for a bronze game, especially with so much expectation that these two teams would be the prime event. Team USA has won the past two bronze-medal games it has played — at the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 World Cup — but it’s a new challenge for the current group.
“I can’t really speak for everybody else, but for me, anytime I go and play with the same intensity, same focus to win,” said Austin Reaves, who is having a strong World Cup averaging 12.4 points and shooting 59% off the bench. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 5-on-5 in practice, it’s first-place game, third-place game.”
Even though Canada has the most NBA talent in the tournament besides the U.S. — with seven current players plus collegiate player of the year Zach Edey from Purdue — it might be a more comfortable matchup for the Americans.
There is a familiarity with the opponent, and Canada, like the U.S., doesn’t have a great deal of size. After the U.S. played four consecutive big European teams in a row, facing a more NBA-style roster in Canada is a relief to Team USA’s preferred style of play.
Canada is 19th in total rebounds at the World Cup, 11th in offensive rebounding. Team USA was crushed on the offensive glass against Montenegro, Lithuania and Germany, giving up a total of 63 second-chance points in those three games.
In addition to the matchup difference, the Americans also know their NBA peers’ personalities.
Like Team USA, Canada has lost twice in the World Cup. But it has a better résumé to this point, having beaten Olympic silver medalist France, defending world champ Spain and Luka Doncic-led Slovenia before losing to Serbia in a foul-plagued performance.
“I’m excited for our future,” said Team Canada coach and Sacramento Kings associate head coach Jordi Fernandez. “What we need to do now is bounce back and be excited about this next game, which me personally, I’m already extremely excited about.”