Svetislav Pesic and Bogdan Bogdanovic combined to teach Dillon Brooks and Canada a harsh lesson from the Serbian school of basketball. A dominant display saw Serbia advance to the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup final.
This was Serbian ball but not quite optimal
The game started like a Svetislav Pesic script. His Serbia team made their first three shots whereas Canada struggled to settle early. Solid organisation on D from Serbia was placing opportunities at a premium. The pace was also at the deliberate style that is typically sought by an old-school European team.
Focused as it may be, it didn’t necessarily lean into the strengths of the individual talent on the floor. Bogdan Bogdanovic got blocked out of it with authority by Kelly Olynk when he tried a soft floater. Nikola Militunov meanwhile couldn’t make his length advantage matter against Dillon Brooks, who forced a shot clock violation by the big man.
The villain was feeling it
Oh man, Dillon Brooks. He has thrived in this tournament. For all the troubles some NBA players have adapting to FIBA basketball, Brooks looks like he was born to play this specific style. He knows exactly where the line is, even if he does go over it occasionally, and makes it work for him.
The highlight of the tournament so far was his driving Luka Doncic demented in Wednesday night’s win over Slovenia. In this one, he was operating effectively in all aspects. On D, transition, or in the half-court, Brooks looked at home in the opening quarter. Until he didn’t. That was when the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup became a prison for the villain.
There’s the Bogdan Bogdanovic this tournament needs
While the deliberate start didn’t suit Bogdanovic’s flow, he soon got into it. His offensive board off a missed free throw by Militunov was pure Bogdan. It was the man we saw the last two outings. It was opportunistic, quick, resulted in a score, and drew a foul. Another drive a couple of possessions later got him to the line.
The one real counter to the Dillon Brooks treatment is to embrace it. That’s what Bogdan did as he openly sought to draw the Canadian towards him to make the wrong move. That spark from Bogdanovic quickly turned into the first big lead of the game for either side.
A warning that resonated
Standing outside my hotel on Thursday night, I got talking to a Serbia fan. He was surprised when I said I had picked Canada to win. For him, this Canada team was like the Australia team of 2016. It had lots of talent, some NBA stars, but wasn’t ready yet. It stuck with me. I remember that semi-final all too well. The Australians looked shell shocked and the loss hung with them enough that they never looked competitive in the bronze medal playoff a couple of days later.
Even with that warning, I’d have still picked Canada. The key difference being that Australia in 2016 didn’t have a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That and the entire nation of Serbia would be disgusted if I had jinxed them by picking them to win. Still, it resonated. Early in the second quarter, it felt like Serbia were in this for the long haul.
This was very Serbian basketball
Nickeil Alexander-Walker thought he’d pulled a good fakeout to create an open corner three. Nope, he’d be roped into an obvious travel. The vintage Serbian style was being mixed now with the flow that this line-up liked. Bogdanovic went inside for yet another finish to bring him up to 13 points already on the day. It felt like he’d already put up 20. Bogdanovic just kept cooking Canada every way he wanted.
It didn’t take long for Brooks to pick up his third foul of the day. This was, by some distance, the best any team had countered him up to now. Svetislav Pesic is a man who rarely targets the top threat, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander being the case here. Instead he looks for the outlets those top players run through and makes them less use to the star.
It was mechanical yet fluid all at once. Every piece of Pesic’s plan was coming together beautifully. Militunov made a defensive rebound, immediately passed as Serbia worked it up the left side of the court, and then was in the right place for an open dunk.
By the half, both Brooks and SGA had picked up three fouls and Jordi Fernandez, the Canada basketball coach, got a technical. At half-time, Serbia were in complete control 52-39.
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Go brave or go home
The gap was such that Canada needed a sense of urgency. Despite their foul trouble, both Dillon Brooks and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were out to star the second half. Brooks came out cooking, with a pair of threes early in the third. Unfortunately for Canada, Serbia were expecting the gamble. Brooks picked up his fourth foul after just three minutes of play in the second half. Olynk followed up with his third, and then his fourth, soon after.
For all their troubles, there was fight in this Canada team. It was far from what was seen on Wednesday night against Slovenia but it was something. SGA, realising the urgency, kept driving, while Lugentz Dort and RJ Barrett sought to offer something to work with.
Control and exploit
Serbia knew that Canada had to drop their physicality in the paint. They went to work from mid-range as a result. It was far from flashy but they knew those shots would be open and they took him. Canada had eaten into the lead a bit in the third quarter but there was no stress from Serbia.
Added to this was Militunov doing his best Nikola Jokic impression, comfortably passing to the open man when he had two or three bodies around him. At the end of the third, Serbia led 75-63.
A steal and finish by Aleksa Avramovic to start the fourth showed us exactly how this was going to go. Serbia were in control and they weren’t giving up this lead. Even when they gave up a turnover on their next possession, they won the ball back immediately. That led to a Marko Guduric three. With that, whatever slim hope Canada still had was gone.
If I pick Serbia to win the final on Sunday, I may not be able to show my face there for decades. I was wrong in my prediction in every possible way. Svetislav Pesic has come under a great deal of criticism during his time as Serbia head coach. Much of it has been justified but credit where it is due. Pesic is an all-time great and he proved it in this game. This was as close to a perfect performance by the Serbia head coach as possible.
Canada will struggle to deal with this loss. They thought they were ready for what a top tier international team could bring them. They had the hard fought wins over Spain and Slovenia. They had impressed. They hadn’t prepared themselves for this test adequately at all. The good news is, they get a shot at bronze and have a year to learn before the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Lastly, what a tournament for Bogdan Bogdanovic. He’s been a trooper for Serbia over the years and is now the front-runner for MVP of the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup. He doesn’t care about the individual award. He wants the Naismith Trophy. It’ll take one mother of a performance on Sunday to deny him.