Fresh off a valiant yet demoralizing defeat at the hands of the Aussies, Gilas Pilipinas soldiers on to another on-court slugfest, this time against Asian rival Japan, whom they beat last November in a game that was way too close for comfort. Gilas was able to flex its muscles under the basket, but they shot worse from beyond the arc despite the presence of several shooting specialists in its roster.
Outside of Abu Tratter and a possibly injured Kiefer Ravena, Gilas will most likely field in the same roster as the Australia game, with Jayson Castro possibly being reinserted into the lineup to match up with the feisty Makoto Hiejima. Gilas should build on what they did well in that match, as the Akatsuki Five will almost certainly field a stronger lineup than the one we competed against last year.
TALE OF THE TAPE
In the previous matchup against Japan, the Philippines managed to eke out a 77-71 win anchored on a strong 44.2% 2PT FG% against Japan’s 36.2%. The two teams competed on virtually level ground—the Philippines won out on the strength of their inside scoring as well as their aggressive interior defense (blocks), of which Calvin Abueva registered 2 in just 9 minutes of play, and Andray Blatche 3. The Philippines outscored Japan on the interior by 10.
Roughly 70% of points registered by Gilas were from Castro (20 pts), Blatche (13), Matthew Wright (12), and Gabe Norwood (10). Out of the entire lineup, only Castro hit above 40% of his threes, hitting 3/5. Wright struggled in this game (25% 3PT FG%), similar to how he also struggled against Australia—a sign that perhaps the playing field has already taken notice of his hot hand and has adjusted accordingly.
Ravena, Kevin Alas, and Abueva spearheaded the bench and were used sparingly in this game.
Japan, on the other hand, relied heavily on the heroics of 6’2” point guard Makoto Hiejima, who made plays at will and made a statement against self-proclaimed Asia’s best—matching his 20 points and dishing out 5 assists, 5 rebounds on 50% shooting.
Naturalized import Ira Brown led the interior defense, feasting on 15 rebounds (9 offensive) against an increasingly slower Andray Blatche, who collected 12 rebounds but committed 6 momentum-stalling turnovers.
BREAKDOWN STATISTICS: JAPAN VS. PHILIPPINES
(FIBA Qualifier, 24 November 2017)
Aside from the interior scoring, Gilas also capitalized on the aggressive, handsy defense we’ve seen from previous Philippine teams, generating 19 points off turnovers against Japan’s 8. Credit Norwood and Blatche’s hustle—they grabbed 7 steals and consistently made open lanes harder to come by for Hiejima and the rest of the Japanese.
Outside of the four hotshots, Gilas was unable to find stability off the bench, and lost significantly in the bench battle with 17-33 points against Japan’s. Their opponents relied more on crisp passing and timely drives instead on isolation plays, capitalizing on their system and shooters for good production despite their starters being on the bench.
TSUJI OR NOT TO BE
One may be tempted to conclude that, with Fajardo, Ravena, and Alas’s resurgent play in the loss to Australia, Gilas can easily replicate our victory against Japan the second time around. However, Japan will likely receive a timely addition to their ranks that will help improve their performance for Round 2.
In their last FIBA qualifier game, Japan beat Chinese Taipei in a 70-69 nailbiter that saw a new face dominating the box scores: 6’0” spitfire shooting guard Naoto Tsuji, who scored exclusively on long-range shots. Tsuji, who didn’t play against Gilas last November, shot a blistering 8/13 from three (61.5%) and 54.5% overall from the field, scoring an impressive 26 points. His long-range game perfectly complemented Hiejima’s interior dismantling of Taipei; Hiejima shot 6/11 exclusively from 2PT range and 50% from the field despite Chinese Taipei’s stalwart center Quincy Davis III patrolling the paint.
Compared to their subpar 31% long-range shooting against Gilas, Japan shot better against Taipei with 35% from the arc and a much better 37% from the field. Japan’s spacing has drastically improved with the trio of Hiejima, Brown, and Tsuji—they can unload shots from virtually anywhere on the floor—and this will require Gilas’ defense and coaching to be reactive and flexible. Gilas has the manpower and talent to resist the Japanese attack, but defensive lapses can make Japan a strong shooting team.
Japan will most likely target Wright for defense beyond the arc—so Gilas should do the same with Tsuji, and ensure he tries much more twos than threes. Likewise, Jayson Castro should go toe-to-toe with Hiejima in an effort to slow him down. If Ravena recovers well from his freak injury in Australia, he can become a strong defensive backup for Castro and ensure 100% defensive coverage each time he’s on the floor.
Worst case scenario—it will fall on Blatche to defend against Ira Brown; and based on his performance against Australia, Gilas can no longer expect Blatche to single-handedly anchor the defense, let alone keep us in the game. More pressure is now put on PBA MVP Fajardo, who led the team with 15 points and impressively held his own against a tall Australian frontcourt. Fajardo is a weaker defender than Blatche, but plays more closely to the system and is a better passer.
Japan, despite being a better version this time around, is still a fantastic way for Gilas to rebound from the recent loss and should strive to find a higher gear in preparation for the elimination rounds.