With only three days remaining before Gilas Pilipinas' match against Iran at the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers, practices and preparation have gotten more and more intense. The coaching staff in particular, are up all night devising ways to combat the Iranian squad that's fresh from a silver medal campaign in the 2019 Asian Games.
And in case there's any thoughts the upcoming bout was going to be a walk in the park, Gilas Pilipinas Head Coach Yeng Guiao has a tall and cold glass of water to throw at you.
"It's going to be a very tough team," Guiao said about Iran after the Philippines' 99-82 scrimmage win over the iECO Green Warriors squad at the Meralco Gym. "The more we watch the videos, the more we study how they play, the greater it seems the challenge is."
It's at this moment that the challenge becomes clear: Iran, the well-oiled machine that has been an Asian basketball powerhouse, will be giving this Philippine squad its biggest challenge thus far outside of Australia. It starts with their anchor in the middle, Hamed Haddadi, the 33-year old NBA veteran. In four games played by Iran, he averaged 16.8 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists as his squad went undefeated.
The Philippines has size to at least make things uncomfortable for Haddadi, especially if Greg Slaughter can get healthy enough to compete. But Haddadi's combination of veteran smarts and effective play will still pose a challenge for the Philippines.
"We worry a lot about Haddadi because of his size, because of his experience, and he's very intelligent," Guiao shared. "He knows how to make use of his assets."
But according to Guiao, what really keeps Gilas Pilipinas up all night is Iran's unique challenge of having size at every position on the floor. Nikkha Bahrami and Arsalan Kazemi are veterans that are still very effective for Iran, and help make the squad's attack so devastating.
"I think aside from Haddadi, we need to worry about their big guards- Bahrami, Kazemi, even their point guards area really good," admitted Guiao. "I'm trying to guard against trying to focus on Haddadi (because) he's not the only problem we have. They have a lot of great players that we need to deal with."
Guiao says the reason for Iran's continued success is their familiarity with one another. They're the oldest team competing in the Qualifiers, with an average age of 29. That indicates that this is a squad hungry for a strong push heading into the 2019 tournament in China.
"They're solid," Guiao said. "They're automatic. We also want to be automatic where everything is free-flowing. But they're there already, and they've been that way for a long time."
Gilas has shown flashes of not being too far behind though. Their performance at the Asian Games, despite being hastily formed, is evidence of that. Add to that the staggering talent added to the pool in players like Greg Slaughter, Marcio Lassiter and Alex Cabagnot and it's easy to see why the team still has a good chance to compete despite the relative quick turnaround.
The challenge is huge, and literally so are the opponents Gilas Pilipinas will face as they travel to Tehran late Monday. But for Guiao and his squad, they're used to the odds being heavily against them. They're ready to put in the work to hopefully spring a trap for Iran on Thursday.