Gilas Pilipinas shrugged off travel fatigue and home jitters to eke out an 89-84 victory against a resilient Japanese team. The Akatsuki Five relied once again on the tireless and effective heroics of point guard Makoto Hiejima, who has proven to be a Top 5 scoring guard in the Asian qualifiers. Despite being well scouted as Japan’s primary scoring option, the 6’2” guard still unleashed his best performance of the season—23 points on 8-11 shooting, including 3-4 threes.
Shooting guard Naoto Tsuji cooled off with just eight points coming from his 26-point explosion against Chinese Taipei due to a combination of Gilas’ long-range defense and pace. David Tanaka contributed 16 points on 6-12 shooting, but ultimately failed to sustain the momentum.
Despite the inspiring win, the past two Gilas games put several problems to light that may haunt us in the future. Sunday was a game of runs, characterized at times by poor adjustments on both sides. In the end, sheer talent ruled over sound strategy—something that Gilas is familiar with on both sides of the spectrum.
We start with a big positive—nay a phenomenal one.
THE PHENOM MENACE
Japan threatened to kill Chot Reyes’s coaching career by blasting Gilas early with a 16-point lead, but Gilas recovered immediately thanks to the coming-out party of ex-King Eagle and bench fire-starter Kiefer Ravena, who embraced his playmaking and oft-criticized long-range game to lead a crowd-energizing 31-point turnaround that incapacitated their rivals for majority of the first half. The Gilas second unit outscored Japan’s lineup 37-6 in that span on a combination of Ravena’s heroics, Troy Rosario’s re-emergence as an outside shooting threat, and a second solid outing by PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo.
Ravena’s humble 13-point outing barely tells the whole story: He effectively controlled the first quarter by jumping over the court and finding teammates between taller defenders, leading to a game-high five assists and two steals. Ravena picked his spots carefully, finishing on 4-9 shooting, 3-6 beyond the arc, and 2-2 from the stripe.
The young guard wasn’t known for his free-throw shooting or his long-range game in college, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see so much growth. His improved playmaking and shooting allowed the team to recoup and patiently find the right scoring opportunity—and Roger Pogoy and Fajardo benefitted from it. We’ve often stated that Gilas needed a true pure point guard like Hiejima, China’s Ailun Guo, and Iran’s Nikkah Bahrami, but perhaps the Castro-Ravena tandem can bring better sustainability and unpredictability.
One player who might benefit from playing with Ravena is the struggling Matthew Wright, who has been inefficient of late. Shooting 0-4 without a single point against Japan, Wright was by far the most unproductive starter on the floor and was stranded on multiple occasions unable to play off the ball. Perhaps Gilas should pair Ravena’s drives with Wright’s spacing in order to relieve defensive pressure on both of them and rejuvenate Gilas’ outside shooting.
Credit Gilas’ bench for digging themselves out of the first quarter hole. The Philippine reserves shot better than the starters from the field, making up for the first five's poor start.
STARTERS VS. BENCH, PHILIPPINES VS. JAPAN
(FIBA Qualifier, 25 February 2017)
Led by Ravena, Rosario, and Calvin Abueva, the whole bench shot .500 overall and committed fewer turnovers than the starting five.
It’s great to have a healthy and productive Troy Rosario back. He gives a dimension of shooting, ballhandling defense, and offensive rebounds that we don’t get from Japeth Aguilar or Fajardo. Rosario was particularly stellar in a 10-point second quarter, where he scored from all over the floor and bothered offenses with his length. With Ravena’s distribution and Fajardo’s post play, the five reserves played the smoothest basketball of the entire game—right before Blatche re-entered and necessitated more one-on-one, slowing down the flow. Rosario finished the game as the second-best scorer in the team with 14 points on 6-9 shooting, including an efficient .800 2pt shooting and .500 long-range shooting.
Fajardo also sustained his momentum from Australia by shooting .500 from the field and grabbing five rebounds (including two offensive), a block, and a steal in 18 minutes of play. He was a frequent recipient of interior passes (some flubbed)—but the biggest difference was that he established himself firmly inside.
The 4-time PBA MVP stays in the paint on offense, while Blatche typically waits for the ball outside to initiate a play. His size and ability to linger behind the paint typically give drivers and mid-range shooters better confidence to operate. He needs to improve his turnover rate to excel further, as he collected three in the game.
Pogoy and Abueva likewise aided the reserve unit valiantly. Although Pogoy shot 0-4 from the three, he was productive in the paint with .667 2pt shooting on floaters and drives. He also registered three assists, solidifying his role as a great all-around combo guard—a bench swiss knife for the coaches to exploit. Abueva shot 4-7 but is increasingly doing so outside the system, similar to how Blatche operates. His inability to shoot pop-ups and threes means he will be dribbling into corners constantly and forcing passes, which is not the ideal way to stretch the floor, but he definitely adds a level of flair and emotion that Filipino crowds absolutely love—something we will gladly take despite the lack of precision.
Despite his aggression, Jio Jalalon’s height seems to be preventing him from operating properly on the floor. Down the line, it might really help Gilas to find a larger, more versatile playmaker to contribute when Ravena and Castro are subbed out. The same goes with Allein Maliksi, whose inability to stay on the floor is making it harder for Matthew Wright to shoulder the shooting load. Perhaps bringing back a Von Pessumal, an aging yet productive Jeff Chan, or even better, a longshot Marcio Lassiter can help balance out the shooting scales and give Gilas more scoring options as opponents adjust.
JUMPSTARTING FOR JUNE
Gilas’ next window will be in June, where they face Chinese Taipei on the 29th then play a rematch against division leader Australia a few days after.
If Sunday’s game ended in the third quarter, we might as well have been ready for the next stage of the tournament. Countless turnovers and an inability to find offense at the most inopportune times gave Japan a means to rally—and an effective one at that.
Gilas had to rely on a suspect Castro quick-release floater to ice the game, but surely lost all momentum heading into the last minute save for that critical shot. There must have been a significant coaching error here somewhere for Gilas to have mounted two double-digit leads, only to lose both of them late in the game.
Our current state of play does not look like a Top 5 team.
OFFENSIVE RANKINGS: FIBA ASIAN QUALIFIERS (AS OF MAX. 4 GAMES, 16 TEAMS)
Normally the identity of a team shows up in stats: for example, China may be the tallest team and has the most frontcourt players, thus explaining their league-leading interior scoring. Korea has always relied on their ball movement (1st) and three-point shooting (7th), and it shows in their stats. New Zealand has always prioritized pace, efficiency, and overall control of the game, thus explaining their Top 5 shooting percentages.
Aside from our propensity to score when we need it most and block a critical shot, Gilas does not do anything particularly well.
Our roster is full of scoring point guards, thus explaining the lack of playmaking. The poor shooting numbers, rising from the poor precision of Wright, Pogoy, and Maliksi also affects assist rates as much as percentages. We have always claimed that puso is enough for man-to-man defense, but we’re not exactly in the Top 5 for steals either, since we also lack the height to sustain our aggression.
Blatche’s superiority inside the paint and Fajardo’s resurgence give us a tandem of strong enforcers down low, and it shows with better rebounding and interior defense—but it also contributes to a bad turnover and personal foul rate. Australia, despite its height advantage, is not known for great individual defenders, but what mattered was team defense and coordination—things we lacked in the second half against them. Fajardo and Blatche struggled in defending against Australia’s big men. How will we fare with a more physically imposing lineup?
On paper, Blatche looks absolutely irreplaceable with 18 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and one block against Japan. But looking past the defensive numbers, Blatche’s five turnovers cancel out the benefits of the assists—and this doesn’t even include the ton of bad shots and low-percentage possessions he coughs up, leading to opponent fast-breaks. By then, his 18-point game looks less shiny. Perhaps we need Blatche to focus more on rebounding and interior play to help stretch the floor for the shooters and give room for other cutters to operate.
Let us reiterate: It’s never a good thing when Blatche is the main playmaker on the floor. There’s a reason why the man fell off the NBA in his prime.
Gilas won this game based on talent. It was quite clear that, outside of Makoto Hiejima’s brilliance, Gilas had the best players on the floor, but not necessarily the best team. We’ve gone down this road before. What happens when a team relying on talent, emotions, and athleticism goes up against a taller, technically sound, and defense-oriented team? Gilas players have always been good. Abueva has always been a fantastic leaper and Castro a fast runner, but will Gilas ever grow above and beyond the simple dribble-drive offense? Can we finally learn to play effective, sustainable defense without gambling on fouls and steals? Can Gilas properly defend against an elite pick-and-roll offense that Australia and Korea used on us repeatedly in past games?
It will be up to the players and coaches to address these gaps and maximize our chances of surviving the bloodbath at the end of the qualifiers. The players have shown what they can do. The challenge now is doing it more efficiently and consistently.