Thursday, September 11, 2014

Celebrating Team Gilas Pilipinas' Recent World Cup Stint

Thanks to their dramatic silver medal finish in last year’s FIBA Asia Championship, the Philippines qualified to compete in the FIBA World Championship for the first time in four decades.  I’m happy that they made it.  It really made watching the World Cup more enjoyable this year.     

Next to Team Espanya, the most fun team that I’ve ever seen in the World Cup’s first round was Team Pilipinas.  And the only reasons why I think “Team Espanya” was more fun is because I adore Pau Gasol and they actually win games.  Sure, I have to enjoy Team Pilipinas since it’s my team, but I probably am not really that biased since foreign observers also enjoyed and grew fond of them.  One said that the Philippine squad displayed the most heart in the first round, while another said that they were actually more fun than Team USA.  
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Technically, Team Gilas Pilipinas’ efforts in the FIBA World Cup fell short.  On paper, a 1-4 record and first round exit is nothing worth celebrating.  But that is just what real fandom is all about.  Regardless of how superficial or minor that achievement is, you will celebrate it.  And when the object of your fandom is in rock bottom, you will still stick by it.  That’s why whether the Lakers win the championship or have a horrendous season, I still root for them.  That’s why even when Bleach sucks already, I still follow it.  That’s why I can forgive all of The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s many flaws and still honestly enjoy it because I love Spider-Man.  That’s why I lament when Almost Human got cancelled after only a season.     And that’s why I make a big deal out of Gilas’ performance in the FIBA World Cup.  As a hoops fan and a Filipino, I can’t help but be invested with Gilas.  That comes with the territory of being a fan.  You will never be apathetic.   You will always be passionate regarding it.   

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But adding some context on how Team Gilas Pilipinas’ World Cup record of 1-4 was brought about, you might understand why being excited about the team’s performance has some justifications. 

Coming into the tournament, the Philippines was ranked 34th in the world, and Team Pilipinas was probably the shortest and most inexperienced squad in the tournament.  They were the most underdogs among the underdogs.  Understandably, odds-makers did not expect much from the team and easily dismissed them.  Many thought Team Pilipinas was going to be blown out in most of their matches.  

Consider this: per Rappler, bookies favored 16th-ranked Croatia to beat the Philippines by 23 points during the first game.   But what happened in the first game was totally different.  Yes, Croatia won.  But only with a margin of 3 points, and they needed an extra period after regulation to hold off the Filipinos.  And that made heads turn.  These short Filipinos can compete with the rest of the world after all. 

And that first game was no fluke; against 3rd-ranked Argentina and Puerto Rico, Team Pilipinas came out of the losing end of close matches.  But those matches could have gone either way.  In fact, those 23 points?  That actually became the TOTAL amount of points the Gilas trailed in all their losses (that includes Gilas’ only blowout loss against Greece)!

The possibility of Team Pilipinas advancing to the Round-of-16 with a 4-1 record was as likely of an outcome as the actual 1-4 that transpired.  If we look at it that way, it was not bad for a 34th-ranked team which had been 40-year absent in the tournament and was the shortest squad in that tournament.  Not bad at all.      

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The Gilas’ battle cry/slogan, puso – literally translated to “heart” in English – truly defined the team.  They were short underdogs, presumed to easily lose by double-digits.  But despite facing taller, more experienced, more skilled, and more athletic opponents, the Filipinos held their own.  They never backed down.  They never showed any signs of being intimidated. 

It was actually the other way around, as throughout the tournament – even after experiencing successive disappointing losses – it looked to me that they always treated each new match with an air of confidence, insistence, and audacity that they can beat the team they will be facing.  That’s why despite going 0-4, and basically being eliminated from the tournament, Team Gilas Pilipinas was still going all out against their last match against Senegal.  Therefore, they still managed a win out of their FIBA World Cup stint.     

This team might have its flaws (leading to those loses.  Will discuss this later), but lack of effort and guts are not among of them.  They banged and fought against bigger bodies to grab rebounds (their rebound numbers are decent actually despite being undersized), played through injury (particularly the naturalized Andray Blatched), fearlessly shot the ball (especially Jimmy Alapag who became Kobe-like in cold deadliness in the match against Argentina), relentlessly ran back and forth across the court (using speed to their advantage against the bigger opponents), and displayed surprisingly energetic defense (there were many times they displayed amazing transition and zone defenses).  When they yell, “Puso!” they do mean it. 

As I continue to push my 20’s, I’ve gradually came to the realization of appreciating hard work over natural, innate capabilities.  That’s why I really like this aspect of Team Pilipinas.  This is one thing I can say that makes me really proud of them.  They really did their best, gave their all.   They showed the world the tenacity of the Filipino spirit.  They showed the world what puso means.  I can find something inspiring in that.  

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Of course, a 1-4 finish is still a 1-4 finish.  Regardless of the fact that Team Gilas competed better than the world expected – almost winning matches against Croatia, Argentina, and Puerto Rico – they still eventually lost.  Regardless of losing by 20 points or merely a point, either way, losing is still losing.  Nothing can change the fact. 

Despite of all the amazing things Team Pilipinas had shown us, there were still several problems.  I would like to point out some I observed:     
  • Gilas lacked poise in pressure.  What do I mean by that?  They commit a lot of mental lapses and turnover when the going gets tough.  In the matches against Argentina and Puerto Rico, Gilas was even able to create double-digit advantages.  But they were not able to keep those leads due to lack of poise.  Which brings me to…
  • They lacked creative half-court sets.  Oh, Philippine-style “bara-bara” basketball did wonders in the tournament.   Other countries were probably not used to see such style of up-tempo basketball offense, which allowed Gilas to confuse them and obtain sizable leads in the first half of games.  It was awesome while it lasted.  However, once teams began to adjust their defenses to break down most of Gilas’ run-and-gun offense, Gilas had no effective, measured half-court plays to turn to.   This caused turnovers.  This caused bad shots.  This caused Gilas’ lead to be erased.
  • And why is there a lot of deferring to Andray Blatche in the perimeter whenever the play breaks down?  Blatche had a lot of turnovers when playing with the ball in his hands from outside.  Sure, he shoots threes sometimes, and successfully drives to the hoop sometimes.  But I think he had more turnovers than net successes.  Gilas should understand that he’s no go-to perimeter scorer.  Better make plays for him in the post.  (Again, Gilas need better half-court sets.)                
  • They need to shoot better in the three-point territory.  I observed that Gilas had a lot of frustratingly missed treys.  Because of size issues, dominating the inside is out of the question.  Filipinos can compensate by doing much damage in the outside instead.  When Argentina, en route to a gold medal, beat the USA in the 2004 Olympics, they’ve done it by lighting the lights out in the tree-point territory.  I believe future Philippine squads will enjoy greater success in the future if they improve the 30-something % in 3pt FG that they displayed in this tournament to at least a solid 40% or greater. 
  • If possible, I would love to see Gilas possess crisper ball movement.  A la San Antonio Spurs kind of finessed ball movement.   
  • With no disrespect whatsoever, but I think there are a lot of better options out there for Gary David’s spot. 
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Team Pilipinas’ best might have been not good enough at this point, but I’m expecting that Philippine basketball will only get better.  And if they sustain this fantastic puso attitude as they improve in other aspects, then the Philippines becoming part of the world’s basketball elite is not at all a farfetched fantasy.  Seriously, if there’s a combination of smarts, talent, and puso?  Philippines will definitely dominate.        

I really hope that this is indeed the start of the rise of Philippine basketball.  After the tournament, Philippines is now, if I’m right, number 24 in the world.  I hope that there will be no dive from there.  I don’t mind if its rise is not meteoric.  I don’t mind if it’s a gradual kind rise.  As long as it’s a rise.  Actually, considering Team Pilipinas’ puso identity, it is more appropriate anyway if the rise to number one is slow, steady, and gritty.  It’ll make a more satisfying story.      

And as a fan, I’ll be here cheering every hard-fought step of the way. 

#PUSO #LabanPilipinas

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