Canadians are playing big roles in the NBA playoffs

CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at the four Canadian players who could sway their team's fortunes in the opening round of the NBA post-season.

Murray, Wiggins, Barrett, Brooks can sway their team's 1st-round fate

A men's basketball player reacts during a game while dribbling.
Canada's Jamal Murray made a splash in his long-awaited return to the playoffs for the top-seeded Denver Nuggets. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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Though the country's best basketball star and a good role player were eliminated last week when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort's Oklahoma City Thunder lost their play-in game at Minnesota, six Canadians are still alive in the NBA playoffs. Here's a look at them, with a focus on the four playing the biggest roles:

Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets)

After having his past two seasons ruined by a devastating knee injury, the 26-year-old guard made an emphatic return to the playoffs on Sunday night. Murray scored a game-high 24 points and dished out eight assists as top-seeded Denver routed Minnesota, 109-80, in their Western Conference series opener.

This was Murray's first post-season appearance since his breakout performance in the 2020 bubble, where he had a pair of 50-point games and two others with at least 40 to help Denver reach the final four. With Murray looking healthy and incomparable big man Nikola Jokic in the running for his third consecutive MVP award, the Nuggets could go all the way this year.

Among the Timberwolves standing in Murray and Jokic's way is Canada's Nickeil Alexander-Walker. He was promoted to the starting lineup for Friday's play-in game vs. Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder and responded with 12 points and six assists to help eliminate his cousin. Alexander-Walker also started Game 1 vs. Denver and had seven points.

Andrew Wiggins (Golden State Warriors)

Remarkably talented, admirably unselfish but somewhat diffident, Wiggins was miscast as a franchise player by Minnesota after he went No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft. The more savvy Warriors made Wiggins part of Steph Curry's supporting cast after trading for him in 2020, and the Canadian flourished in that role in last year's playoffs. Apart from Curry, Wiggins was arguably the biggest reason Golden State won its fourth championship in eight years, and the Warriors rewarded him with a four-year, $109-million US contract extension.

But the good times ended for Wiggins in mid-February when he took a leave of absence from the team (reportedly because his father was dealing with a serious health issue) that stretched through the end of the regular season. Due to his rustiness, the sixth-seeded Warriors brought Wiggins off the bench in their playoff opener vs. No. 3 Sacramento, and it may have cost them the game as the surprising Kings won a 126-123 thriller in their first playoff appearance in 17 years. Wiggins returned to the starting lineup last night for Game 2 and scored 22, but Golden State lost again.

Escaping Sacramento's delirious fans should help the champs as they return home for Game 3 of this highly entertaining series. But they're in danger of being overwhelmed by a younger, hungrier Kings team that includes Canadian guard Trey Lyles. After averaging 7.6 points off the bench this season, Lyles scored 16 in the Game 1 victory over Golden State before posting a goose egg in last night's win.

RJ Barrett (New York Knicks)

Now in his fourth pro season after going third overall in the 2019 draft, it's still unclear what Barrett will become. The 22-year-old wing averaged 19.6 points this season, but that was down slightly from the previous year and he's still a spotty shooter and questionable defender for a guy who will soon be paid north of $26M a year.

New York fans are notoriously unforgiving of talented players who don't live up to big contracts, especially if they come up short in the playoffs. So Barrett could be on the hot seat after scoring just seven points on a miserable 2-of-12 shooting in Game 1 at Cleveland. New York's 101-97 win may have kept the critics at bay for now, but Barrett must do more to quiet them in Game 2 tonight.

Dillon Brooks (Memphis Grizzlies)

The gritty agitator averaged 14.3 points and countless ticked-off opponents this season for a Memphis team that grabbed the No. 2 seed in the West despite star Ja Morant's eight-game suspension for brandishing a gun on Instagram. Brooks' list of high-profile enemies includes Warriors stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, Cleveland's Donovan Mitchell and now LeBron James, who Brooks said he "wouldn't mind playing" in the first round.

Brooks got his wish, but LeBron clapped back with 21 points and 11 rebounds in the Lakers' Game 1 win on Sunday. Brooks had an inefficient 15 points and four boards for Memphis, which is unsure of Morant's status for Game 2 due to a hand injury that limited him to just 18 points in the opener. The Grizzlies have been without Canadian forward Brandon Clarke (10 points per game) since he suffered a season-ending Achilles tear last month.

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