Tantalizing week in Canadian basketball could signal start of new era
Murray's hot streak followed by Dort breakout, Nash hire, Anunoby buzzer-beater
On a week that began with Jamal Murray's second 50-point outing in three games, it's hard to believe the Canadian basketball spotlight has already been stolen by Lu Dort, Steve Nash and OG Anunoby.
Yet here we are.
All of a sudden, between Murray, Dort and recently named NBA coach of the year Nick Nurse, Canada's Olympic medal hopes have been rekindled once again.
And with Bridget Carleton's breakout WNBA season, along with Natalie Achonwa's veteran savvy and Kia Nurse's learning experience as a top option, the women — who have qualified already, unlike the men — are eyeing the podium too.
On Wednesday, Dort — a rookie who averaged 6.8 points per game in the regular season — exploded for 30 in Game 7, only for his Oklahoma City Thunder to fall by two points to the Houston Rockets.
The Montreal native's performance broke LeBron James' previous mark of 27 Game 7 points for a player under 22 years old. Dort, 21, also became the lone undrafted free agent to reach the 30-point plateau in a Game 7.
It was, in a word, stunning. Dort didn't play his first game for the Thunder until December after starting his season in the G League. It took him 12 career games to reach double-digit points. He wasn't even dressed for Game 1, yet by Game 7 he was central to the series plot.
Dort shot under 30 per cent from deep during the regular season and earned his minutes as a defensive force. When Oklahoma City realized Dort was its best shot at slowing down Rockets super-scorer James Harden, he was forced into big minutes — but his offensive shortcomings meant the Rockets generally ignored him to give help defending Chris Paul and fellow Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The strategy opened the door for Dort — and he bolted through in Game 7.
WATCH | Dort scores 30 in Game 7 against Rockets:
The following morning, Canadian basketball minds were captured by something both old and startlingly new: Hall of Famer Steve Nash was hired as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.
The move came out of nowhere. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said he's spoken to Nash frequently and received no hint of the news. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr — for whom Nash was working as a player development consultant — said he didn't find out until Wednesday night.
Nash had previously been Team Canada GM, though he recently withdrew into a consulting role. He'll now become the second Canadian head coach in NBA history, joining Jay Triano who started with the 2008 Raptors.
The 46-year-old and two-time NBA MVP established a relationship with Kevin Durant while the two were with Golden State, and they'll make their Nets debuts together next season alongside Kyrie Irving and armed with championship aspirations.
WATCH | Breaking down Nets' choice to hire Nash:
Quick Raptors interjection: the week wasn't going as well for the defending champions, down 2-0 in their second-round series to the Boston Celtics.
The Raptors' success doesn't directly attribute to Canada Basketball success; indirectly, though, many, including NBA Canada managing director Leah MacNab, point to the Vince Carter (or Steve Nash) effect for getting Canadians hooked on the sport. Without those two stars, there may never be a Jamal Murray or Lu Dort.
More obviously: most Canadian basketball fans are Raptors fans too.
And so the whirlwind week continued when Raptors forward OG Anunoby hit a steely buzzer-beating three-pointer to save Game 3 — and basically the series — for Toronto.
"I don't shoot trying to miss," Anunoby said.
WATCH | Anunoby's Game 3 buzzer-beater gives Raptors much-needed win:
Before Anunoby's shot and Nash's hire and Dort's breakout there was Murray's magic.
The Nuggets guard and Kitchener, Ont., native became the story of the NBA playoffs in his first-round series against the Utah Jazz when he produced 50, 42 and 50 points in Games 4 through 6.
The feat made Murray the first player since Michael Jordan in 1993 to follow a 50-piece with 40 or more and the first-ever to have consecutive 40-point, zero-turnover playoff outings.
The 23-year-old is also the first player since Allen Iverson in 2001 to have three straight 40-point playoff games. Iverson's run came against Carter and the Raptors, and in Game 3 those superstars famously posted duelling 50-point performances.
Murray, naturally, found his own combatant in Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, as the two combined for a record 475 points in their seven-game series, won barely by the Nuggets.
WATCH | Murray soars to 50 in Game 6 against Jazz:
Soon enough, if Canadian basketball participation at the grassroots level continues its record pace, we could be talking about the Jamal Murray effect.
"If you look at Jamal Murray one year ago and Jamal Murray of today — wow. What an incredible improvement and how exciting. I think he is a bona fide star now. And I think we have the potential to see more of those Canadian players do that as well," MacNab said.
In the WNBA, Canada boasts more players than any country outside of the U.S. with four.
Kia Nurse, from Hamilton, is the household name — the 24-year-old broke out alongside Murray at the 2015 Pan Am Games, leading Canada to gold.
Nurse was supposed to spend this season alongside top pick Sabrina Ionescu on the New York Liberty, but Ionescu's injury robbed them of the time together. Instead, Nurse has been thrust into a lead scorer role she doesn't seem quite ready to handle, as the Liberty sit 2-15.
Toronto's Natalie Achonwa is the heady veteran who does a little of everything for the Indiana Fever. The playoff-bound Minnesota Lynx sport two Canadians going in different directions: Bridget Carleton, the 23-year-old wing, is getting her first real opportunity and making the most of it. Kayla Alexander, the 30-year-old veteran, has been in and out of the lineup.
WATCH | Carleton turning into key player for Lynx:
"I think more than anything, it's that young, talented basketball players now can see a path to both the NBA and WNBA from Canada," MacNab said.
The basketball landscape is now littered with Canadian stars, from Nash to Dort to Murray to Nurse.
Once upon a time in 1996, Nash was the highest drafted Canadian ever at 15th overall. The country's talent has only multiplied since then.
"I have no doubt that the talent on the court will propel the conversations amongst our fans," MacNab said.
A tantalizing week in Canadian basketball could signal a new dawn.