The 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifiers kicks off Tuesday at the Mall of Asia Arena. Our beloved Gilas Pilipinas team will be on center stage as we vie for the single ticket to the Rio Summer Olympics. So, after years of preparation, it’s come down to this. By the luck of the draw, Gilas has been grouped against France and New Zealand, the fifth and 21st ranked teams in the world, respectively.
If Gilas has any chance of competing for that precious ticket to the Olympics, the easier route to do that is to beat both France and New Zealand in the group stage. Sadly, it’s easier to write that than to actually do it, which is why Gilas Pilipinas will need to play the best basketball it’s ever played if it wants to put itself in the best possible position to succeed. So let’s look at what lies ahead for our beloved boys, first by sizing up our chances against the 2013 EuroBasket Champions...
What we should really worry about France: Anxiety and pressure
Tony Parker may not be the same Tony Parker that he once was, but he’s still capable of being the focal point of the French national team. It’s important that Gilas doesn’t get cross-eyed with anxiety when they start playing a four-time NBA champion. Same thing with Batum, who has played his way into a max contract with the Charlotte Hornets (recent reports indicate though that the valuable wingman might not play until after July 8, or after he signs his new NBA contract). Gilas caught a break by not having to face France’s towering pivot man Rudy Gobert, but just because the Stifle Tower isn’t manning the paint for the French doesn't mean we're going to dominate our Day 1 opponent inside.
Even without Gobert, this French team is arguably the strongest squad Gilas has ever faced so it’s important that the boys play committed throughout the game and not get too tentative when they share the floor against Les Blues.
Key Gilas player(s) of the game, outside of Andray Blatche: Terence Romeo will be crucial in this one. If he can break down France’s defense from the point of attack, open up the floor with his drives to the basket, he can provide enough space for our shooters to take open shots.
This is where the anxiety comes into play because Gilas needs to play loose, as if they’re playing with house money. Don’t worry about the opposing team and their familiar faces. Just play through your sets, hustle, and play defense like your lives depend on it. Tough task, we know. But Gilas didn’t get to this position without having done all these things in the past. It’s just a matter of doing it again.
Can we beat France? Turkey coach Ergin Ataman said it’s “impossible,” which rubbed a lot of Filipino fans the wrong way. We're not prepared to throw Gilas under the bus the same way, but we understand Ataman’s choice of words, harsh as it may sound. No, we don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s going to be a huge mountain to climb to be able to beat France.
Key Players: Corey Webster and Benny Anthony
What we should really worry about New Zealand: Overconfidence and physicality
It’s easy to look at New Zealand and think that Gilas can beat this team because they don’t have any recognizable players. But if we take this team lightly, we’re going to get embarrassed. Bad. The Tall Blacks may not have a roster littered with NBA stars and future Hall of Famers like France does, but they're a ferociously physical squad that can manhandle Gilas if our boys are not up to the task.
A big part of the Kiwis’ offense revolves around the guard-forward combo of Webster and Anthony. Both players have shown the ability to be shot creators—off the dribble and catch-and-shoot—and you can be sure they’re going to take their fair share of shots in this game. Gilas needs to be wary of not falling asleep trying to switch on and defend these two because if their shots start falling, they’re going to be hard to stop.
Key Gilas player(s) of the game, outside of Andray Blatche: Marc Pingris and Gabe Norwood. Our two defensive lynchpins will have to be as stifling on defense as they’ve ever been. Norwood could have the assignment of trying to stop Webster and if he does end up on duty against the Tall Blacks’ number one option, he needs to be at his sound defensive best. That includes no gambling for steals, going over screens, switching, and not getting into foul trouble. As for Pingris, we all know what he’s capable of when he dons the Gilas jersey.
In this game, he’s going to be crucial from a defensive standpoint. First, he also can’t get into foul trouble. Second, he can’t let the Kiwis’ front line outhustle him to box-out positions. Third and most important, he needs to be the guy who talks a lot on the defense, pointing to switches, directing assignments, and just being a pest on that end of the floor. Oh, and he needs to keep his cool because New Zealand will be very physical under the basket.
Can we beat New Zealand? Yes, we can. That’s not us being overconfident but our team can match well with New Zealand if we can keep their two main guys from getting into any kind of flow. But it’s important to remember that this New Zealand team will give us everything we can handle. This is the same team that lost to the US National team in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, 98-71, showing everyone that they could hang with the world’s best. If we don’t give them the respect they deserve, they’re going to bully us out of any chance of booking a seat to the Olympics.
Photos from sportsczechout.com (Nicolas Batum, Tony Parker, and Boris Diaw), AFP.com (Tony Parker), KC Ramos (Terrence Romeo), FIBA.com (Corey Webster, Benny Anthony, and Marc Pingris), interaksyon.com (Marc Pingris and Gabe Norwood)