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It is easy to say that the Philippines (FIBA ranking #31) will sail through the first round of play as they are bracketed in Group B of the 2015 FIBA Asia Championships in Changsha, China, with teams like Hong Kong (#69), Kuwait (#70), and Palestine (unranked).
And it will behoove the Philippines to take all 3 squads seriously and not let overconfidence get the better of them. If there is anything that the last FIBA Asia taught the Filipinos (those matches versus Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong in particular), it is to take to every game like it is a do-or-die match.
The tiny state qualified for the first time to the FIBA Asia Championships with a 2-2 record in the West Asian Basketball Championships and are no doubt one of the biggest stories of the tourney capturing the imagination of basketball fans everywhere. Their other two previous international stints were several generations ago (1964 & 1970 in the African Championships where they finished third and sixth respectively).
When thinking of this tiny state, it is hard to separate sports and politics. Given that this country has been torn by war and strife for decades, and doesn’t even have a decent sports program, their qualification to FIBA Asia is nothing short of remarkable. The Palestinians finished third behind Lebanon (4-0) and Jordan (3-1). Iran already qualified as defending champions.
The unranked team will actually be a stronger one when they compete in FIBA as they have two stalwarts to count on who will be reinforced by 3 other players who didn’t suit up in Amman during the West Asia Basketball Association (WABA) tournament but are projected to contribute heavily in their campaign.
Players to look out for:
Any talk about Palestine’s team will have to start with 26-year old Sani Sakakini, their 6-foot-8 heart and soul. He will probably log minutes as his tea’s center or power forward. This athlete plays similar to Lebanon’s Fadi El Khatib as he is a do-it-all player. Sakakini can post up as well as drive in for a thunderous dunk. In the past few years, he soaked in a lot of Asian basketball experience playing in Korea as well as China.
Photo by AFP
The team’s other pillar is Jamal Abu-Shamala, a Palestinian-American from Minnesota, USA and played for the Golden Gophers in NCAA Division One ball. Initially, Shamala played significant minutes for Jordan in the 2008 Jones Cup that the West Asian country won. The 6-foot-5 forward has since played for Palestine, the land of his father’s birth.
Providing help is another 6-foot-5 Palestinian-Canadian Ahmed Haroon who can play either guard position. Haroon, if left open likes to shoot triples. If given an opening as well, he will attack the basket and he can finish.
Suiting up for FIBA Asia will be Sakakini's 6-foot-7 older brother, Salim, who will see minutes at the 4 or 5 spot. Six-foot-one Omar Krayem, was unable to suit up for the national team during WABA as he was playing for GlobalPort in the PBA where he gave a good account of himself. He will run the point and no doubt share with his teammates the physical brand of ball the Philippines plays.
Palestine is not very good defensively. During the last WABA, their team defense was very loose. They preferred to play zone with soft challenges on outside shooters. The don’t really crash the boards.
Having said that, it may be because of the level of experience and exposure available to them. Some of their players grew up in North America so they know what big game basketball is all about.
How the Philippines should play them:
While basketball is arguably one of the more popular sports if not the most popular in West Asia, I don’t think Palestine has seen anything like the Philippines’ frenetic defense. Expect the Filipinos to smother the Palestinians defensively. The Sakanini brothers might be tall but it's doubtful they have the speed or strength to play Andray Blatche. They could get around Asi Taulava or Sonny Thoss but the Philippines’ switching and help defense is one of the best.
Gabe Norwood could be tasked to shut down Haroon while Jayson Castro William will give Krayem fits. Calvin Abueva and Terrence Romeo, because of their unpredictable style of play, will wreak havoc among the Palestinians.