Dissecting the Gilas Heartbreak

Bert A. Ramirez
Dissecting the Gilas Heartbreak
Gilas Pilipinas came ever so close to registering several upsets at the FIBA World Cup. Columnist Bert Ramirez dissects why Gilas finished with a 1-4 card

The Gilas Pilipinas team that made the country’s first appearance on the world stage – either the World Cup or the Olympics – after 36 years has made the Filipinos proud, much like the Philippine Azkals in football did when they beat regional power Vietnam in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup in 2010, and the Gilas boys well earned all the accolades that have come their way after those six memorable days in Spain.

After having been consigned, partly due to some dolorous performances in their tuneup games, to the dustbin except by diehards, the Filipinos surprised almost everybody with their tough, gutsy and tenacious play in the group competition of the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Seville, Spain. It didn’t matter that they failed to advance to the 16-team knockout phase of the tournament, admittedly their stab-in-the-dark goal going into the competitions.

What mattered most of all is the way they played their hearts out, and earned the respect and admiration of even their most highly-regarded rivals in the process.

“This game against the Philippines was the most uncomfortable game I’ve ever coached in my career,” said Argentina coach Julio Lamas through an interpreter just after the Filipinos almost upset the world No. 3 Argentineans before going down 85-81 in their third game in the Group B preliminaries. “We respect the Philippines and their potential from the start of the game. They have a tremendous dynamic team, and the execution of that style is very high level.  They play very well, they’re different because they feel this (game), they play with passion,” he said.

That is no trifling praise from a seasoned coach by any means. Lamas, after all, has steered the Argentinean national team for the last four years since taking over from fellow champion coach Sergio Hernandez in 2010, and was also the national team coach from 1997 to 1999 as well as the assistant to Hernandez on his country’s Olympic team that won the bronze medal in Beijing, China in 2008.

Prior to this heartbreaking loss to Argentina, the Filipinos went through another wringer of a heartbreaker right in their first game that could have signaled that, yes, the Philippines rightfully belonged with the big guns on the world stage. They forced Croatia, ranked 16th in the FIBA rankings but a top-10 team in reality, into overtime and just lost 81-78 on at least a couple of questionable calls by the referees, the last on an obvious non-call of a foul on a last-second three-point shot by Jayson Castro, which could have given Gilas a chance to force another overtime.

This is why Greece’s coach Folios Katsikaris was grateful he heeded advanced reports about how seriously he and his team should take the Filipinos once they played each other. “It’s a good thing that they listened to me, ultimately,” Katsikaris said of his guys who thought Gilas would be easy pickings because of its size handicap (the Philippines was the smallest team in the tournament with an average height of 6-feet-3 and the Greeks the tallest at 6-8) but had to work extra hard to eke out a very physical 82-70 victory over the Filipinos. “It took me a long time to convince them. Had they not believed me, we would have been the one (who lost).” 

Recah Trinidad, the hard-to-please sports scribe who is one of the last of his generation that has seen the greatest of the previous eras, was himself convinced that this edition of the country’s basketball representatives was worthy of its place on the world stage. “It cannot be denied that, this early, Gilas Pilipinas has gained the attention and respect of the whole basketball world with a display of the boundless Filipino fighting spirit in a global basketball war meant for the fearless and truly dedicated,” the venerable Trinidad wrote in his column “Bare Eye.” 

Aldo Alvinante, who represents the younger set of local scribes, concurred with Trinidad about the Filipinos’ toughness and success in proving they were worthy of being on the same court with the world powers. “International scribes and observers were asking who these guys are. Defying all logic and reason they have turned doubters into fans, turning the ‘happy to be here’ status to ‘these guys are for real’ tag,” Alvinante said.

While the Filipinos eventually failed to advance to the next phase with a stinging 77-73 defeat to Puerto Rico after leading by as many as 14 points in that game, they would provide a balm for that somehow in their last game by beating Senegal, the surprise fourth qualifier from their group, 81-79 in overtime.  The victory, fashioned out with the tournament’s top rebounder, Andray Blatche, on the bench after having fouled out with 1:55 left in overtime, was significant not only for that severe handicap they had to overcome but also because it was the first victory for the country in the World Cup after 40 long years.  

The Philippines lost all its eight games when it hosted the event in 1978, and its last victory in this tournament came against the Central African Republic 87-86 when it was played in 1974 in Puerto Rico.  The country, then using players that would later become internationally ineligible when the PBA came into being in 1975, finished 13th in a field of 14 teams despite also eking out a 101-100 victory over Australia and tying the Aussies and Argentina with 2-3 records in the classification round. That round has been done away with by the FIBA.

The country’s World Cup stint in Spain may well be considered a watershed event much in the way that Suzuki Cup victory by our Azkals over Vietnam in 2010 was in football, as it opened up a wealth of possibilities for the Philippines’ future in the sport its people love with a passion.  In fact, it can be argued that the way Gilas failed to advance to the knockout stage while putting up a tough fight in losing to Argentina and Croatia by no more than four points may have done more for the image of Philippine basketball than if it did advance to the next phase but lost to Argentina, Croatia and Greece by 25 points or more, which was how many figured it would actually turn out.  

But the Filipinos’ gallant, heroic effort separated them from the rest of the also-rans, also-rans though they may still be. After all, Iran, the reigning FIBA Asia champion, lost to Spain by 30 and to Brazil by 29 en route to a quotient of minus 62 points, which means the Iranians, despite a host of big men led by the 7-foot-2 Hamed Haddadi, lost by an average of more than 12 points per game, with their lone victory coming at the expense of tournament doormat Egypt 88-73. South Korea, which is now moving heaven and earth to prevent Blatche from suiting up in the Asian Games it will host starting September 19, meanwhile, lost all its five games by double figures, compiling a total deficit of 108 points for an average losing margin of 21.6 points.

Jayson Castro was one of several Gilas players who sustained injuries in pre-tournament games. Photo from FIBA.com

Manny Pangilinan, president of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas who is the godfather of the country’s basketball program, expressed satisfaction with his boys’ performance despite their failure to reach the hoped-for 16-team stage. “On the whole, you could see the whole world waking up to Philippine basketball and I’m happy about it. We’re benchmarking the two other Asian countries which participated in this tourney. The losing margin of Korea was over 100 points, Iran was much, much higher than us.  Buying that token, we did very well. Hindi lang tayo pinalad, muntik na sa atin ang Croatia, Argentina and Puerto Rico (We just didn’t get lucky, Croatia, Argentina and Puerto Rico almost got it from us).” 

“I’d just like to say how much I admire the courage of these 12 men,” Gilas coach Chot Reyes himself said of his players after the Filipinos’ historic win over the Africans. “I’m very happy media is recording so that the whole world will know the courage of these men. We didn’t have Jayson (Castro, who was out with a swollen left knee). (Marc) Pingris and Ranidel (de Ocampo) weren’t in top form.  Ping played until he couldn’t even walk anymore.”

Truth is, Reyes himself was put under the gun before the Senegal game by Pangilinan, who, wanting to reward a frustrated nation for the series of near-misses, told his coach, also the top sports executive at MVP’s TV 5 network, to go all out to beat the Senegalese, whom Gilas led by as many as 15 points before a rally by the African third-placers helped by a series of Philippine turnovers eventually sent the game into extra period.

“My final message was, look, I know you can’t guarantee a win against these huge teams in FIBA because they’re the best 23 countries in the world but we owe our countrymen a lot for their support. The least that you can do is repay them with a win,” Pangilinan recalled telling Reyes. The Gilas boys, of course, responded.

But given everything that happened in Spain, there are several factors that proved crucial in the country’s inability to make it to the next phase of this year’s inaugural FIBA World Cup. These are the areas that need to be addressed by the local basketball brain trust if the Filipinos are to be able to build on the head-turning exploits they pulled off in these competitions.

First, it was obvious that Gilas Pilipinas lacked experience on the world stage. Despite the various foreign trips and tuneup games the team has played in the course of training camps, the Filipinos are simply not experienced enough in handling the pressure of the real games particularly against world-class teams outside Asia. This was shown in the tentativeness of their play especially in the final stages of close games.  

In that crucial game against Puerto Rico, for instance, the Gilas boys could not capitalize on a 70-67 lead they gained on Blatche’s three-point shot with 3:39 to play. Instead, they let Puerto Rico score eight straight points, all of them by J.J. Barea, to practically hand away the victory with 14 seconds left.

“Every game we played, we had a chance to make the game-winning play and couldn’t deliver,” Reyes admitted. “Perhaps it’s our inexperience in situations like this, not only the players but also me as a coach.  

“They are all superstars with their commercial teams in the PBA, but it’s different when you have the Philippines (in front of your uniform). It’s a lot heavier. It takes a lot of getting used to, really,” Reyes said of his players, and that includes Blatche, who he said was just gaining his first international experience.  “You have to remember that this is Blatche’s first international tournament.  He has absolutely no clue how to play in these tournaments. He is very inexperienced in these situations and in the clutch, it showed.”

In their last game against Senegal, the Filipinos again lost a huge 15-point bubble first built by a 19-0 blast, which had the Senegalese reeling at 35-22 with 2:36 left in the second quarter and saw them trail 39-24 and 44-29 early in the third. But they allowed the Africans to catch up again, being forced into overtime when they could have very well won it in regulation had they not let their taller rivals collar three straight offensive rebounds, which were capped by a tying three-pointer by Maleye Ndoye with 36 seconds left. Blatche and L.A. Tenorio then missed in succession to have to earn the win in extra time.

“It’s been 40 years since we last won in the World Cup, none of my players were in fact born the last time we won here.  So unless you’re in this kind of environment, you really don’t know what to expect,” Reyes observed. “Like in this ballgame (against Senegal), in the endgame we froze, because we’re not used to it.  We showed in the whole tournament that we belong and that we can compete, and tonight we showed that we can win. I’m not making excuses, but we really (lacked) the experience to win at this level. Hopefully we can get the chance to come back here and gain the experience.”  

Gilas was also stymied by too many turnovers, which may partly be an offshoot of the Filipinos’ tentativeness that is, in turn, a function of their lack of experience at this level. That allowed opponents more opportunities to score while limiting their own chances at the offensive end, particularly during crucial stretches.  

Starting with its third game against Argentina, the Filipino squad had more turnovers than its opponents, committing 15 against the Argentines’ mere eight, none bigger than the traveling call against Castro that led to the clinching free throws by the South Americans. Against Puerto Rico, Gilas had a total of 18 to the Puerto Ricans’ 16, but what hurt the most was that the Filipinos committed six of those in the payoff period. Against Senegal, the Philippines had a total of 17 to the Africans’ 15, including six in the fourth quarter that enabled the latter to force overtime.

“The record 15 turnovers against Argentina also showed something seriously wrong with the Gilas team structure, mainly in the area of limited, one-sided footwork,” Trinidad himself said as he suggested a new style that would bring the Filipinos out of their “utterly predictable stone-age ‘dribble-and-shoot’ style of play.” 

One other area that the Filipinos should improve upon is their outside shooting, particularly from three-point range. Jimmy Alapag, L.A. Tenorio, Jeff Chan, De Ocampo and Castro all had their moments while Blatche showed a surprising touch from beyond the arc. But the Philippines, by and large, had been inconsistent in these games with the three-point shot, which assumes greater importance in international competitions particularly for a team that’s not blessed with great size like the Filipinos.  

Against Croatia, for example, the Filipinos shot 10-of-28 from trey area, seven of them by Chan and Blatche, and this enabled them to come from behind a 15-point deficit early and send it into overtime.  The same happened in the game against Argentina, whom the Filipinos pushed to the limit with a tournament-best 13-of-27 from beyond the arc for 48.1 percent, with Alapag (five), De Ocampo (four) and Castro (three) combining for all but one of those three-point bombs. In the win against Senegal, the Filipinos shot a decent 8-of-27 from that distance, three of them by Alapag.

It’s no coincidence that in the games where Gilas shot just six three-pointers – Greece (6-of-22) and Puerto Rico (6-of-28) – the Philippines either had their least competitive game or failed to get the win they needed most to stay in the hunt. In fact, a case may be made that had the Filipinos not been deserted by their three-point shot just two days after scorching the nets from that distance, they could have easily beaten Puerto Rico and moved on to the next phase following their win over Senegal.  

This all the more stresses the need to develop Filipino players’ outside-shooting skills. The Koreans, notwithstanding their miserable performance in this World Cup, are noted for having developed this great equalizer used by smaller teams, and so are the Chinese-Taipei players of late. But a look at the roster of PBA teams would reveal the paucity of such great pure shooters nowadays, and with the 36-year-old Alapag set to retire from international competitions, it’s become even more imperative for the country to produce shooters in the mold of Allan Caidic, probably the greatest pure shooter of all time among local players, and such other great shooters as Chip Engelland (the former naturalized Northern Consolidated Cement star who has later done wonders with NBA players), Ronnie Magsanoc, Jimmy Mariano, the late Adriano Papa Jr. and Renato Reyes Jr., and, to a lesser degree, guys like the late Valerio de los Santos, Jimmy Manansala and James Yap.

Of course, one disadvantage any Philippine team always has when it plays in international competitions is the lack of size of its players, and this Gilas group is no exception. Being the smallest team in the tournament, the Filipinos had to work extra hard particularly on defense to keep up with bigger rivals.  Blatche did provide a capable anchor in the middle the way the great Carlos Loyzaga did in the golden era of the sport, but there’s undoubtedly a need to produce bigger, skilled players who can match up better with the Europeans, Americans and Africans.

The 6-10 June Mar Fajardo demonstrated what such a player can do when he, along with Alapag, spearheaded the Filipinos’ finishing kick against Senegal, and he can rightfully be considered among the future of the sport. But guys like Greg Slaughter and Sonny Thoss have to step up to the plate and make a commitment to the national cause if we are to bolster the Filipinos’ chances in international competitions.  The two declined to join the Gilas Pilipinas pool when they were invited for various reasons, and one can only hope they had nothing to do with parochial interests that sometimes exist among PBA teams and get in the way of an all-out pursuit of a national endeavor.  

And what can one make of Japeth Aguilar, Gilas’ 6-9 forward who hasn’t quite seemed to make the big leap after years of promise?  At 27, has he reached his ceiling? Aguilar, the son of former national team player Peter Aguilar, has all the tools to become a major star, but he can’t seem to put it all together like he showed in this World Cup.

At any rate, developing capable big men should be among the priorities of the national basketball program, if only to arrest the growing disparity between the Philippines and other countries in that regard in international competitions. Thoss himself is 32, while former national stalwart Asi Taulava is 41, and Pingris and De Ocampo, among the medium-sized Filipino frontliners, are both 32, so a new breed of frontliners has to emerge in the assembly line soon. 

“I’ve told Chot let’s sit down after Spain in Manila and do a forensic post-mortem on what went right and assess what is needed in the Asian Games, and looking forward to the 2015 qualifier for the Olympics and the qualifier for the next world championship,” Pangilinan said. “We have to prepare for that because most of these players will be too old for 2019. By that time, Blatche is what? Thirty-four? Dapat mag-isip-isip tayo (we should reflect) especially if we get lucky to host the next world championship.” MVP, of course, has the momentum to do just that. It’s now up to the rest of the basketball community and the players themselves to come forward and make a commitment, for the sake of a cause that, at least for six days this month, kept Filipinos spellbound, for better or for worse. 

SHORTSHOTS: For purposes of eliminated teams’ final placings in the FIBA World Cup, which are no longer determined by a series of classification games, fifth-placed teams in their groups were ranked 17th-20th, while sixth-placed teams were ranked 21st-24th, with the rankings determined by win-loss record and goal average.  The Philippines thus ranked 21st after having had to give way to Puerto Rico for fifth in Group B… Jose Barea of Puerto Rico emerged as the top scorer in the tournament with an average of 22.0 points.  He is followed by Andray Blatche of the Philippines, Bojan Bogdanovic of Croatia and Pau Gasol of Spain, all with 21.2-ppg norms, and 2010 top scorer Luis Scola of Argentina (19.5), Hamed Haddadi of Iran (18.8), Tanick Moreira of Angola (17.8), Gustavo Ayon of Mexico (17.6), Francisco Garcia of the Dominican Republic (17.6), and Aron Baynes of Australia (16.8), in that order… Blatche was the tournament’s top rebounder by a big margin with 13.8 rebounds per game.  Ranking second was Haddadi himself with 11.4, and third was Gorgui Dieng of Senegal with 10.7… Ricky Rubio of Spain was the top assistman with a 5.8-assist norm, with Petteri Koponen of Finland in a virtual deadheat with him at second with 5.8, and Xane D’Almeida of Senegal third with 5.3. – Rappler.com

 

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC and Metro Manila Life as well as, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.


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