TORONTO — Rick Carlisle was raised in Ogdensburg, NY, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, about two hours west of Montreal and an hour south of Ottawa, across the river from Prescott, Ont.
The now-Indiana Pacers head coach was American by passport, but like a lot of people who grew up in towns on either side of the US-Canadian border, the nationalities can get blurry.
“I grew up with no cable television, watching Hockey Night in Canada on Tuesdays and Saturdays because that’s all we got,” said Carlisle, 63.
“We got one American station, and we got, you know, CBC and CJOH, and we had an antenna on the roof, and you turned the thing to point it in the right direction. And so I grew up (with) Canadiens, and Maple Leafs fans and seeing those games all the time and saw a lot of Stanley Cups won, you know?”
So the man has more than a passing interest and knowledge about Canada and Canadian basketball, having coached Dwight Powell for years in Dallas, and name-checking Canadian basketball royalty, such as Jay Triano and Leo Rautins.
But did he ever expect to be starting three Canadians on Canada Basketball Night in an NBA game in Toronto against the Raptors?
No, no, he did not. But there he was filling out a starting lineup featuring Canadian rookies Andrew Nembhard (Aurora, ON) and Bennedict Mathurin (Montreal) and fourth-year forward Oshae Brissett (Mississauga, Ont.).
It marked the first time three Canadians ever started for the same team in an NBA game and when Raptors forward Chris Boucher (Montreal) scored at the rim midway through the opening quarter he was the fourth Canadian to score in the game by that point, which had to be another record of some sort.
When Carlisle was watching the Canadiens with five cups in the ’70s on CBC, he couldn’t have guessed that Leafs would be sharing their building with an NBA team, and it was the Raptors, not the Leafs, that were the first team to hang a championship banner.
“And I’m familiar enough about the history of Canadian basketball,” Carlisle said. “… But you know, what’s happened in the last 10 years or so has been just something just off the rails, it’s just been crazy.”
What was crazy was how the Canadian Pacers performed. Indiana was without all-star guard Tyrese Haliburton and so Mathurin filled his spot but adding Brissett was Carlisle trying to do the right thing, giving a role player a moment of shine in his hometown.
It all worked out perfectly for the Pacers — and Canadian basketball fans — if not quite so well for the Raptors.
Brissett — who started his career with the Raptors — scored the game’s first basket, a three; Nembhard assisted on the Pacers’ second hoop and scored their third on a nice right-handed drive before Mathurin teed up a three a moment later. The game was two minutes old and the Canadians were leading the Raptors 10-5.
“For sure, the game meant a little bit more for us three,” said Nembhard. “And I think we scored the first three field goals so that gave all confidence.”
They finished what they started too.
Nembhard especially as he capped off a dream home debut against the team he grew up watching with a dagger three with 32.5 seconds left that iced a 118-114 win for Indiana in a game the Raptors desperately needed. The deep three at the end of the game gave Nembhard 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting to go along with 10 assists in one of the most impressive games a local product has ever had against the Raptors.
“I knew I either had to get a shot or get to the paint and make a play,” said Nembhard, who was leading Gonzaga to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament this time a year ago. “I was flowing, it was one of those ones where you’re just in the moment.”
It couldn’t have come at a worse time for Toronto, who need to make hay on their four-game homestand as they try to secure a spot in the play-in tournament and ideally higher than the ninth seed that they have now thanks to their 35-38 record. The loss ended their home winning streak at seven and starts their four-game homestand at 0-1.
The Pacers improved to 33-40 and are on the fringes of the hunt for a play-in spot, but they can at least claim a 3-0 sweep in the season series with the Raptors.
The Pacers started strong — buoyed by the Canadians — and never let the Raptors wrest control of the game back from them. Down the stretch it was Mathurin and Nembhard doing a lot of the work as they combined to score or assist on all 19 of the Pacers’ points in the final 6:12 of the game, capped by Nembhard’s triple.
“Well, both of them have uncommon courage and moxie for those situations,” said Carlisle. “Mathurin was just kind of born for this kind of thing. You know, he’s undaunted, and he loves to compete and he’s just unafraid. You know, categorically, unafraid. And Drew’s similar. Their personalities are different, but the qualities are similar.”
Mathurin finished with 15 points — seven in the fourth — on 3-of-5 shooting while going 6-of-6 at the free-throw line. Brissett had nine points and six rebounds.
The Pacers shot 55.8 per cent from the field and 11-of-21 from three which was enough to overcome 18 turnovers. The Raptors shot 43.8 per cent from the floor and 7-of-34 from deep with 10 turnovers.
Fred VanVleet had 28 points and 11 assists but was 7-of-22 from the floor and 3-of-12 from deep. Siakam had 31 points on 11-of-17 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and seven assists.
The Raptors were without Scottie Barnes (wrist), Gary Trent Jr. (elbow) and Precious Achiuwa (hamstring), which resulted in Will Barton being inserted in the starting lineup, but given the Pacers were without Haliburton, call it a wash.
But the real problem was Canada’s team didn’t come with the energy that the Pacers’ crew of Canadians brought.
“Definitely a difficult game for us,” said Boucher, the veteran from Montreal who had 11 points and three blocked shots off the bench for Toronto. “I feel like they had more energy than us, were moving the ball a lot faster, they were going in transition, even when we were scoring they were just getting the ball and getting it up to the other side. They have great three-point shooters and made shots.”
If Nembhard’s bomb was the exclamation point, Carlisle’s long view provided the perspective needed to appreciate it.
The way Canadians have infiltrated the NBA in the past 10-12 years — we are the most represented country in the league after the United States with 23 players this season — is a story we’ve gotten used to hearing.
But there has never been a stretch like this. Consider the talent that has passed through Scotiabank Arena of late. Last Tuesday it was Jamal Murray starting for the Denver Nuggets; Thursday it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort starting for the Oklahoma City Thunder; Saturday Nickeil Alexander-Walker was part of the rotation for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Then came the Pacers with their three starters and on Friday the Detroit Pistons will arrive with Cory Joseph, who was at the crest of the current wave and is still a productive veteran in his 12th season.
“Pretty, pretty amazing. Pretty, pretty breathtaking, you know?” said Carlisle. “And they got [Raptors head coach Nick Nurse] coaching the national team and so that thing is in great hands… this, this country has become a real hotbed for basketball talent.”
The best may yet come. If the excitement around Vince Carter, the Raptors and Steve Nash’s success in the early 2000s is often credited for the surge of interest and talent boom a decade or so later, what will happen when the kids who cut their teeth on the Raptors’ 2018-19 championship team get a few years older?
It’s fun to think about.
But in the here and now the current edition of the Raptors didn’t have the opportunity to think big picture or play the part of generous host, not when it looked like the Pacers were about to break in, raid the fridge and empty the liquor cabinet.
Nembhard alone seemed determined to make his first visit to Scotiabank Arena as a professional a special moment not only for him but for the estimated 200 friends and family he had in attendance.
Nembhard was the best player on the floor under any flag in the early going. By the time the game was six minutes old he’d added another assist for a Pacers three, a nifty jumper in the lane, a lefty drive to the rim and then his own triple. The Pacers — playing without their leading scorer and playmaking all-star Haliburton — led 36-26 after one quarter and the Canadian contingent had 24 points, led by Nembhard who had 14 points and three assists. the Raptors were able to rein the Pacers and Nembhard in somewhat in the second quarter, but Indiana was still able to take a 58-52 advantage into the half.
Nembhard’s explosion was predictable. Prior to a poor offensive outing against Chicago on Monday, Nembhard had soaked up the additional responsibilities with Haliburton out and averaged 18.8 points and 4.6 assists a game while shooting 52 per cent from the floor and 45.8 per cent from deep in his most productive stretch of an impressive rookie season for the 31st pick in the 2022 draft. A lot of teams who may have overlooked him because he played four years of college basketball and was 22 on draft day will regret it.
“I think people get caught up in what you think someone should be or what you want them to be instead of using your eyes and going with someone who has done it their whole lives,” said VanVleet, a decorated four-year college player who went undrafted and has done well for himself. “You watch the kid do what he’s been doing: He’s been the same player everywhere he goes. It wasn’t going to be any different in the league. Just need a little bit of opportunity. He’s having a great year.”
As the second half went along the Raptors were slowly able to assert themselves, even short-handed. VanVleet and Siakam began to roll, combining for 18 points in the third, and after a triple by Pacers sharp-shooter Buddy Hield (assisted by Nembhard) put the Pacers up by 13, Toronto went on a 19-4 run and took the lead on triple by little-used Malachi Flynn. But the Pacers pushed back and took an 83-78 lead into the fourth thanks to a jumper by Nembhard on Indiana’s last possession.
Turns out he was just getting started, and Canada Basketball night turned out to be exactly that, even if it came at the Raptors’ expense.
“It wasn’t very cool tonight. Not much appreciation from me tonight,” joked VanVleet about the Raptors’ rough ride on Canada Basketball night. “You guys should be proud. You guys should be proud just how far the game has come. So many guys, just in the seven years I’ve been in the league, every year it seems like there’s more and more young Canadians that play well and play big minutes and have really bright futures in this league. Maybe we shouldn’t be so welcoming when they come play us. Nembhard killed us tonight. Mathurin is having a great year. We know Oshae. We had him. We’ve got our own Canadians on our team. We’ve seen a lot of them in the last week. The Canadian basketball coaches should be proud and excited about the future.”