"Down goes China, down goes China!"
That was what we heard in our heads as Gilas Pilipinas outlasted their old rivals, 96-87, to open up their 2017 FIBA Asia Cup campaign. One more victory in the preliminary stage will secure Team Philippines a spot in the playoffs for the quarterfinals while notching two more wins—which is basically a sweep of Group B—will seal them a spot in the Final 8.
But coach Chot Reyes and his charges still have a lot on their plate, with Qatar and upset-minded Iraq still out to get them. Gilas definitely needs to keep the momentum they've got from their pulsating win. For that to happen, the the squad still needs to work on certain facets of their game right away. Based on our first look at our Manok ng Bayan, these are their weaknesses that require immediate fixing and their strong points that they badly need to sustain.
Gilas had China on the ropes for two and a half quarters. But suddenly, Gilas started letting the reigning FIBA Asia Champs drain three-point shots. Although China finished the game 12 out of 30 from long distance, most of those threes came in the latter part of the third up to the mid-part of fourth period, where the Chinese nationals were able to put together several furious rallies. To avoid getting nearly knocked out by a barrage of three-balls like they almost did, next time, Gilas must scramble even harder and communicate even more during defensive rotations.
Our top rebounders were Roger Pogoy and Christian Standhardinger with six boards apiece. But it’s very hard to knock Team Philippines’ bigs for the squad’s rebounding deficit against the lengthy Chinese players (30-39) because every single Gilas frontcourt player went all out. However, China’s 20 to five advantage on the offensive glass is a big wrinkle that Gilas must iron out. Japeth Aguilar (5 blks), Gabe Norwood (3 blks), and Raymond Almazan (intimidation) were terrific in stopping China’s initial rim attacks but the second possessions almost always resulted in a Chinese basket. Again, communication and the mindset to never stop playing even after a terrific block should help Gilas sort this issue out.
As great as Terrence Romeo was, he was also part of the reason why Gilas almost threw away the win. With him on the floor, Gilas was almost exclusively on iso-ball mode. The beautiful teamwork and excellent ball movement of Team Philippines went poof and so did their sizeable lead. It's a good thing Romeo was sinking his sick jumpers, which ultimately bailed out Gilas. But in sticking to that approach, Romeo and the rest of the team would be predictable and easier to defend in the following games. Team ball must remain as Gilas’ calling card all the time to stand a chance against the other elite contingents. As for Romeo, he needs to trust his teammates a lot more. Actually he’ll be lethal if he can learn to make plays similar to Jayson Castro’s gorgeous pass to Standhardinger with 54 seconds left in the game.
The overall demeanor of Gilas throughout the game shows that they were there to lay the smack down on their opponents, hence the intense physicality that resulted in a couple of altercations and a Calvin Abueva ejection. More importantly, the self-assurance and the swag did not only manifest in their physical play. They were also on full display when the shooters, led by Romeo, Pogoy, and Matthew Wright, hoisted the ball with overflowing confidence, when the big men protected the rim with conviction and when the defensive specialists, most notably Norwood, covered their assignments like blankets. This Gilas team seems to know who they are and what they need to do to maximize their strengths. The coaching staff deserves mad props for instilling indomitable will and the right amount of self-belief to a group of guys who actually look like they want to play together.
The roughness, toughness and inside offense were all there for Gilas, courtesy of Standhardinger (19 pts), Aguilar (13 pts, 5 blks), and Almazan (9 pts and two rim-rattlers). They all did what they’re supposed to do. Aguilar made all the right plays as an athletic forward and Standhardinger was a fantastic finisher in the paint. But the biggest surprise was Almazan. Unfazed by the bright lights, the former Letran Knight proved to be dependable on both ends. The trio was a major part of why Gilas outscored China inside, 38-36, which more than made up for June Mar Fajardo’s absence. It would be really nice to see more inside plays like Japeth’s nifty dime to Standhardinger at the 5:17 mark of the third quarter, or Almazan’s slam over two defenders at 5:32 of the second period.
The players in this team looked like they were made for each other. The new additions provided what the old Gilas squads lacked, while the stalwarts—Castro and Norwood—continue to be indispensible fixtures in the Gilas program. To sum things up, the virtuosity of Romeo, amplified by scoring specialists Wright and Pogoy spearheaded a 58.8% three-point shooting clip. Almazan and Hardinger gave Aguilar the muscle needed to freely perform. It was also lovely to see Norwood, fully concentrating on making defensive stops, knowing that the offense is being taken care of by the young guns. With this impressive win, notwithstanding Chinese superstar Yi Jan Lian’s nonappearance, the Gilas boys have given the country lot to look forward to. But the truth is, we should not get ahead of ourselves. Beating China is just one game. We still need to see if Gilas can keep this cohesiveness in the coming days.