MANILA, Philippines – There were many positives in Gilas Pilipinas’ recent Middle East road trip in the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers.
The fact that the team chalked up victories in both games augurs well for Chot Reyes, who has been the recipient of the heat, blame, and ridicule from Gilas fans who were dismayed at how the national team program had seemingly regressed since he took over as head coach and program director from Tab Baldwin.
Prior to the November window, Gilas Pilipinas under Reyes had only won three out of their six games this year in the World Cup Asian Qualifiers. The Nationals thumped India twice then blasted Saudi Arabia last August at the MOA Arena with Jordan Clarkson leading the charge for Gilas. Neither India nor Saudi can be considered among the stronger teams in the region.
The losses came against perennial regional powerhouses New Zealand and Lebanon. The two defeats to New Zealand were forgettable outings for Gilas as they lost by an average of 35.5 points.
Gilas needed to start winning under Reyes to placate the growing impatience of Filipino fans who wanted the national squad to at least show some semblance of progress as it gets ready for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, which the country will host along with Japan and Indonesia.
At least in the two games the past days, Gilas Pilipinas showed signs that things might finally be beginning to fall into place for Reyes and his team.
Gilas Pilipinas used a blistering third-quarter attack to create enough separation to down Jordan, 74-66, on Friday, November 11.
Jordan is the first opponent of note that Gilas Pilipinas has upended this year. Jordan is coming off a fourth-place finish in the FIBA Asia Cup held last July in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In that tournament, Jordan advanced to the playoffs after finishing second to Australia in Group A in the preliminary round. In the knockout stage where the Philippines was eliminated by Japan, Jordan escaped with a 97-96 triumph over Chinese Taipei.
Jordan went on to the quarterfinals, where naturalized shooting guard Dar Tucker erupted for 29 points to overcome Mohammad Jamshidi’s 23 points and Hamed Haddadi’s 16 boards as they booted out Iran, 91-76. Jordan then lost a heartbreaker to Lebanon in the semifinals, 85-86, before bowing to New Zealand in the battle for third.
What makes the Gilas win over Jordan even more impressive is that the host team had not lost at the Prince Hamzah Hall since 2018. Three days after the debacle against the Philippines, Jordan bounced back by prevailing over the visiting New Zealand squad that had seven remnants from the team that dominated Gilas Pilipinas in the previous FIBA windows.
A few days later, Gilas Pilipinas struggled to pull away from Saudi Arabia early before carving out a 76-63 triumph. This was a surprise for casual fans but not for those aware that the Saudis have improved in recent months since Johan Roijakkers of Netherlands took over the coaching reins.
Roijakkers, who has coached in the Italian league first division and in the German Bundesliga and was an assistant coach for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA G League, instilled a fast-paced, European brand of play in the Saudis that Reyes and his staff took a while to figure out.
Gilas Pilipinas scored an average of 75 points in the games against Jordan and Saudi as the Filipinos shot a respectable 42.3% from the field. This is just about the same offensive output of the team in their six prior games where they averaged 75.83 points.
But what is evident this past week is how players are slowly learning to share the ball and move the ball better. The team registered an average of 18 assists, 5 dimes higher in their three losses where they only normed 13 assists.
Scottie Thompson was the central figure that fueled the team’s ball movement as he put up 5.5 assists in the two wins. Dwight Ramos also was key with his average of 4 assists.
The improved ball distribution led to the team spreading the wealth more on offense. Seven Gilas players posted an average of at least 6 points, with four norming double digits.
Kai Sotto continues to top the team offensively with his average of 13.5 points. Ray Parks and CJ Perez both put up 10.5 points, while RR Pogoy’s explosion from beyond the arc in the game versus Saudi enabled him to average 10 points.
But it was on the defensive end where Gilas Pilipinas shone brighter.
The national squad clamped down on D and held Jordan to just 66 points on 37% shooting from the field, including a woeful 3-of-25 from three-point distance.
Saudi also did not have much luck against the Philippine defense. Gilas allowed Saudi to sink 9 triples, but this came from 40 attempts for a dismal 22.5% clip. Saudi was held down to 63 points, shooting only 29%, as they found the interior to be an impenetrable fortress manned by a young giant.
This is in stark contrast to the team’s six previous games when they gave up 75.33 points. The numbers were even worse in the losses as Gilas allowed opponents to score an average of 93 points in each of their three defeats.
Thompson, Ramos, Parks, and Perez gave Reyes a backcourt and wing rotation that was fast and athletic. Imagine if Jordan Clarkson and a healthy Thirdy Ravena join the fray. The Gilas coaching staff will have a stable of thoroughbreds that will be a nightmare for opposing teams’ transition defense.
Japeth Aguilar provided the veteran presence in the low block to complement Sotto. Aguilar’s and Angelo Kouame’s defense on Turkish league veteran, 6-foot-11 Ahmad Al Dwairi, and Saudi’s main big Mohammed Almarwani not only preserved Sotto, but also allowed him to frolic on offense and be the last line of defense for Gilas.
Aside from being the team’s leading scorer, Sotto also posted 8 boards and 3.5 blocks per game. Sometimes, people tend to forget that Sotto is only 20 years old, yet he does not back down from older and heftier opponents in FIBA competitions.
The team upped its steals (6.5 from 3.6) and as a whole rebounded better, averaging 47 boards, 3 more than in their first six games, almost 9 rebounds more than when they lost.
The 6-foot-1 Thompson was the team’s leading rebounder with 11 boards per game. If there were still any doubts about how the reigning PBA MVP would be able to bring his all-around brilliance to the international scene, then these last two games should have answered these questions.
Just as Reyes was heavily criticized when the team struggled and went down in defeat, he has earned credit for piloting the team to victories this time around.
With roughly nine months left before the World Cup, Reyes now has some things he can build on going into the next FIBA window scheduled on February. The team has shown character in the last two games. One can hope that this leads to the team finally finding its identity. – Rappler.com