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Analysis: Gilas Pilipinas at the 2019 FIBA World Cup—Who’s to Blame?

The joy of qualifying, the agony of defeat.
IMAGE SPIN.PH
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Game results:

Italy 108 – Philippines 62    

Serbia 126 – Philippines 67

Angola 84 – Philippines 81

What happened?

Just hours after the 46-point beatdown against Italy, armchair experts were already on social media giving their amateur opinion about the team’s performance like theirs was the word of God himself.

To the critics’ credit, there really wasn’t much to rave about in that game. Gilas, as a team, was horrible. We only put in three shots of 23 attempts from three-point range, while also being a step slower defensively, leaving open three-point shooters all night long (Italy made 15 threes out of 31 shots).

It didn’t help that the Italians were great passers too (30 assists); we failed to share the ball enough with only 10 assists.

What we did have too much of was turnovers. We were a +10.

The silver lining? Despite our team giving up three inches (average team height), we only gave up four extra rebounds (34 Ph vs. 38 Italy) and even dominated on the offensive boards (13 Ph vs. 10 Italy).

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Serbia was a totally different beast though. They shot a scorching 75 percent from the field, which means that of their 64 shots, 48 went in, that includes the 12 of 22 they put up from beyond the arc. Our defense was suspect again, failing to match their quick ball movement that gave them 37 assists. We only had 14. We lost the battle of the boards this time to the tune of 37 to 23.

Our start was much better in this game. The energy and hustle was higher, and we played the first quarter like we belonged on the court versus the No. 4-ranked team in the world.

Alas, it didn’t make a difference through three quarters. The result was a 59-point loss.

Against Angola, the No. 37 ranked team in the world, our hopes were pretty high. We are, after all, ranked higher at No. 31. We lost every quarter except the 4th when we outscored them by 10 and sent the game to overtime.

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Our outside shooting was simply atrocious, a dismal 10 of 46. The Angolans fared much better, putting in nine shots out of 25 attempts from three-point range.

Aggressiveness on the boards was not a problem. We out-rebounded Angola 53-50 and were a +8 on offensive rebounds.

The boys showed heart but the shots just didn’t fall for us in crucial moments of the game and the opponents’ slightly better field goal shooting (40.8 percent FG) made all the difference in Angola’s three-point win.

2 straight FIBA World Cup appearances

Hard as it may be to believe, this is Philippine basketball actually getting better, albeit viewed from a very wide perspective.

Better, because we’ve been trying to qualify for this tournament for 36 years and failing miserably. Prior to our glorious return in 2014, the last time we played here was in 1978 when it was still called the FIBA World Championship. Now, we’ve already made two consecutive trips to the FIBA World Cup! How cool is that?

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But, once again you’ve got to look at the program from a bird’s-eye view: it’s a long-term project and a work in progress because this time around we weren’t nearly as good now as we were five years ago.

In 2014 we lost to the five teams in our bracket by a combined 23 points (81-78 in OT vs. Croatia, 82-70 vs. Greece, 85-81 vs. Argentina, and 77-73 vs. Puerto Rico).

Don’t bother doing the math to compare. This is, without a doubt, our worst showing yet.

Yes, it’s a major step back, but if you think of the big picture, that’s gaining priceless experience playing against the best-of-the-best, something you don’t get by watching tape.

Did the competition get progressively better in the last five years? Maybe, but you’ve got to consider the fact that the team now is also totally different from the team we sent in 2014. Only four players from the previous team remain and the rest of the roster are World Cup rookies. Plus, several players were unavailable for a variety of reasons.

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Matthew Wright sustained a peroneal tendon sprain while Poy Erram rolled his ankle in one of the national team’s practices; Marcio Lassiter is recovering from a knee injury; Stanley Pringle and Christian Standhardinger were both eager to join but are naturalized players in FIBA’s eyes and only one is allowed per national team. That slot went to big man Andray Blatche.

Scottie Thompson, Greg Slaughter, Ray-ray Parks declined to join, and Jayson Castro just stopped short of retiring from Gilas after withdrawing from consideration to focus on his family (he’s been with the national team for seven straight years).

Whose fault is it?

Everyone’s.

The basketball culture we’ve loved and embraced for so long (and subconsciously refused to let go) is totally different, from how the game is played on an international, FIBA level.

In the NBA, the PBA, and to a certain extent the UAAP and NCAA, go-to players have the license to wave off ball-screens in favor of isolation plays to breakdown defenders. It’s exciting basketball, maybe even pretty, but in reality, is not the most efficient way to play the game.

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That’s been the kind of basketball we’ve espoused ever since we placed fifth in the 1936 Summer Olympics and won the bronze later at the 1954 FIBA World Championship.

Can’t really put all the blame on Filipino players (and even Fil-Ams) that have come up through the years because we’ve all been there—idolizing Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Steph Curry. These are guys who use the dribble in isolation to drive by you, dunk on you, or worse, shoot the three in your face.

If that’s the kind of game we love, that’s the kind of game they’ll play.

Everywhere else, hero-ball, one-on-one, I’ll-break-you-down plays are seldom seen. What’s very obvious is great spacing, crisp passing, movement without the ball, and the never-ending search for the “open” man. Called Euro-ball (from the region it was popularized), these players operate on the basic premise that winning a game with five players is easier than with one great player.

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The basketball is passed along the perimeter in an effort to unbalance the defense. If that doesn’t work, there are back screens, zipper screens, pops and/or rolls, the dribble weave hand off, and a host of other options and plays to free up a teammate for an easy basket.

It’s not that they don’t have these plays Stateside or even here, it’s just not executed to perfection.

Must learn the hockey pass

If there’s one thing we need to learn, it’s the “hockey pass.”

Named after a hockey statistic, the hockey pass is technically the pass that leads to an assist for a bucket. It is an eye-opening stat that hasn’t been monitored nor recorded by the NBA until very recently and is listed down as Secondary Assists per Game in comprehensive box scores. Deeply rooted in the Euro style of play, it involves reading defenses properly and making lightning-quick decisions that will create assist opportunities for teammates.

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This invaluable skill leads to a high field goal percentage, more balanced scoring within the team, a more democratic distribution of minutes which leads to higher team morale, and on the flipside, will drive opposing teams to madness and confusion. Think Miami versus San Antonio in the 2014 NBA Finals.

And by the way, nine of the 15 players on the Spurs’ roster that year were foreign players, seven of whom played internationally before joining the NBA.

Puso

Don’t be disheartened (pardon the pun) because I do believe our best performance in the World Cup is yet to come.

Qualifying is already a feat in itself. Think about it, we bested 181 other basketball-crazy countries and we’re one of only 32 federations competing for world basketball’s greatest prize.

That being said, by no means should we settle and rest on that laurel, and knowing us (the team and the fans), we won’t.

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Breaks of the games, figuratively, just didn’t go our way. The players we needed were injured or unavailable; vital seconds, minutes and hours of training camp were lost as the national team waited for the conclusion of the PBA finals; and finally, hastily putting together the country’s best players from a league with an NBA-type format and ask them to win against top global competition in a FIBA setting is simply too much.

We must have a better program moving forward.

In FIBA years, we are but a baby with only a total of three appearances, which means we’ve got a lot of growing up to do.

But first things first, we all have to believe. As one line in that famous poem of Walter D. Wintle goes, “Life's battles don't always go to the stronger or faster man; Sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.’

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Our ball players are the best in the region (soon the world), our coaches are world-class, and Filipino fans are so rabid, the highest viewership of the World Cup came from our tiny little country.

That, right there, is already a winning combo. But for now, the next step is finding that the joy, again, and qualify for the 2020 Sumer Olympics in Tokyo.

Eric Tipan is a morning person who hates waking up at 5 a.m. He does the daily morning radio show on 104.3 FM2 and then starts pounding the keyboard promptly after to fulfill his duties as a contributor to various media outlets. You can catch him on TV sportscasting for ABS-CBN S+A or co-hosting weekly lifestyle show Gear Box on RP1 738 kHz.

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