MANILA, Philippines – For years, the FIBA Asia championship has been dominated by Hamed Haddadi, a 7-foot-2, former NBA player who’s used his size to terrorize Iran’s continental rivals and help his country attain multiple gold medals.
But unfortunately for Haddadi, the FIBA Asia tournament has a new, and quite literal, big boy ready to take the reins from his grip.
In his first FIBA Asia Championship, naturalized Filipino Andray Blatche has feasted on the competition – and, no, I’m not just talking about the buffet tables in Changsha, China.
Five games in, the 6-foot-11, former Brooklyn Net has averaged 16.4 points and 9 rebounds a game, leading Gilas Pilipinas to a 3-1 cumulative record in Group E of round two.
On Monday, September 28, he stamped his place as the new best big man the tournament has to offer as he outplayed Haddadi and led Gilas Pilipinas to a critical win over their rivals from Iran.
Blatche, who accounted for 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 steals, clearly has more raw talent than the Iran big man, but everyone knew that Haddadi wasn’t going let go of his title without a fight.
Unluckily for him, the other guy was just way better.
After consistently putting up dominant numbers against the Philippines over the past few years, Haddadi was limited to just 10 points and 7 boards against Gilas.
So, why’s that? Bad shooting night, maybe? More like Blatche made his life in the paint a nightmare.
Those post moves Haddadi used to use against the likes of Marcus Douthit or Japeth Aguilar? They weren’t working. Nada. Sorry, Hamed, those old tricks don’t work no more.
That height advantage he used to have? Negated by the lengthy wingspan of the Gilas big man, who barely even had to jump to bother the Iranian’s shot attempts. Overall, Haddadi shot just 4-of-9 from the field. It’s not the most disastrous stat line, but compared to what he usually does against the Philippines, it was significantly lower.
The benefit of being heavier than his past defenders? I mean, have you seen the size of Blatche’s body? Haddadi didn’t stand a chance. Maybe it’s a good thing that soup and salad diet didn’t work out so well.
Well, okay, Blatche did slim down a bit. I’d say he lost a pound or two.
(WATCH: Blatche hits circus layup, swats Kamrani’s shot)
Going back to the topic: there were many reasons why Gilas broke a 3-year losing slump to Iran on Monday. Jayson Castro once again proved why he’s the best point guard Asia has to offer. Terrence Romeo was back to his dancing, dishing, and scoring ways, with the matching hairstyle to boot. Calvin Abueva did Calvin Abueva things. Tab Baldwin drew up a masterful game plan, forcing Iran into 16 turnovers.
(READ: Jayson Castro is still the best point guard in Asia)
But none of it would have been possible without Andray Blatche. It’s insane, isn’t it? How a few years ago, the 29-year-old was one of the most laughed-at players in the NBA for his irresponsibility. In 2015, he’s become, in a sense, the hero of Philippine basketball.
Trust me, even I can’t believe I just typed that.
But that’s the case, and it was most evident against Haddadi and Iran. Gilas needed that victory badly. They needed to get that confidence of knowing they can beat their biggest FIBA Asia rivals, in case of the event both teams meet in the finals, with a ticket to Rio on the line.
With Blatche leading the way – particularly on the defensive end – that came to fruition.
And he wasn’t too shabby on the other end of the floor as well. Blatche shot 50% from the floor on Monday. Why’s that? He finally decided to quit taking all those 3-pointers. Despite fighting through an ankle injury he sustained against Japan, the Syracuse, New York native relentlessly attacked the paint in the second half, which opened shots and driving lanes for the likes of Romeo and Castro.
Haddadi and Iran had no choice but to foul him whenever he penetrated. Eventually, it came back to haunt Iran’s 30-year-old big man as he fouled out – with some help from the pesky and theatrically great Calvin Abueva.
When Iran sent multiple defenders at Blatche’s way, he didn’t even think twice about passing it out to open teammates. The best part about his performance? Just one turnover. Not only did he do a fantastic job limiting Haddadi, he also made smart decisions with the ball.
Over these next few years, the Philippines has an opportunity to supplant Iran as the best of Asia. China, as always, is going to be tough to deal with. Korea will always be a nuisance.
But why will the Philippines come in as favorites against those opponents? Partly because of their starting big man.
Let me knock on wood here, but I’m going to assume that the SBP and Gilas will make sure Blatche remains in a Philippine jersey for years to come. Sure, they might have to extend the size of that jersey every once in a while, but with Blatche at the team’s center spot, they will be the top force to deal with in the continent.
No other big man – not even Yi Jianlian – has the mix of offensive talent and defensive capabilities Blatche has. No one knows that now more that Haddadi, who had no choice but to watch from the bench as Blatche took his spot as the FIBA Asia’s big daddy. – Rappler.com
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