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Serbia and Italy showed just how far Gilas Pilipinas still needs to go

Serbia and Italy often baited Gilas into making mistakes and relied on patient and systematic play to dismantle the Philippines. Dan Jung/ESPN

Editor's note: Much has been made about Gilas' lack of preparation, athleticism and size during their historically bad campaign in the 2019 World Cup. In this two-part series, we examine how institutional differences between the Philippines and the rest of the world also contributed to their losses and what Gilas can do to address them.


Gilas Pilipinas is trailing Serbia by 25 points, with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. Kiefer Ravena weaves through traffic and receives the ball from Robert Bolick on the right elbow. Stefan Jovic trails Ravena and refuses to give him any space to launch a shot.

Gilas goes into their offense -- a pick-and-roll at the top of the key, with a June Mar Fajardo screen. NBA All-Star and MVP candidate Nikola Jokic shadows Fajardo, but is forced to make a decision: Should he stick with Fajardo or "ice" the pick-and-roll and focus on Ravena?

Jokic drops back as Ravena comes barreling down the lane. Jokic, who is not fastest, still closes out Ravena just as he gets in the paint. Even if he is late, Jokic can still deny Ravena a good look at the basket.

Ravena is now in a tough spot. He stops at the rim and can't dribble anymore. Jokic is all over him, so he has no shot. One of the referees has initiated the countdown for a three-second violation.

In his periphery, Ravena sees Japeth Aguilar drifting from the strong side corner to an angle where he can receive a pass. But Serbia is ready for that, too. Nemanja Bjelica stretches out his arm and bats the ball away, immediately triggering a fast break on the other end. Serbia's 4-on-2 results in an uncontested layup and extends the lead to 27 points.

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Ravena's turnover

Serbia's defense forced Kiefer Ravena to make a bad pass and resulted in an easy transition play.

Gilas opened the 2019 FIBA World Cup with back-to-back lopsided defeats and lost by an average of 52.5 points. It was an eye-opener for Gilas, showing them how elite teams play basketball internationally. These teams weren't there just to compete, they wanted to win the whole thing.

Ravena's turnover was just one play that represents the gap between Gilas and the rest of the world's top teams.

"Whenever you do a pick-and-roll, and this is something Serbians do, you don't look at just [your primary defender]. You look at the defense, especially on the weak side," said Gilas assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga.

The other Gilas players not involved in the Fajardo and Ravena pick-and-roll were moving. Troy Rosario had some space because his defender started to drift. Bolick was drifting outside the 3-point line and wasn't in a position to score at all.

"Why is Troy's hand up?" Coach Sandy points out. "It's because his man is ready to rotate on June Mar. That's the key: Once he rotates on June Mar, ball should be there. But [Kiefer is] not looking, his head is down. He's thinking of attacking to finish, which is why he never sees Troy."

Simple basketball

Gilas was running its dribble-drive offense and getting into sets with a lot of hand-offs and screens. Italy and Serbia were reading each other's movements and feeding off each other's actions.

"Even when we scouted Italy, we saw simple basketball," said Arespacochaga, who arrived in China days before the rest of the team to study their opponents. "Italy has very simple plays, yet the ball goes to the open man at the right time. It's not the complex and nice X-and-O plays, it's how smart they are."

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Italy moves the ball

The ball movement here by Italy freed up Luigi Datome for an open 3-pointer.

This was evident in one play run by Italy in the first quarter. Italy spreads the floor, setting up Marco Belinelli to post up Roger Pogoy on the left block. One-on-one, Belinelli has a 50-50 chance of scoring by taking on Pogoy. But Belinelli was posting up to draw the defense.

Andray Blatche, who was guarding Danilo Gallinari, falls for the trap and leaves his man to help Pogoy. Belinelli sees Blatche, veteran Luigi Datome, who is shadowed by Norwood, sets an off-ball screen for Gallinari. Belinelli hits Gallinari with a beautiful crosscourt pass.

Norwood now curls around the screen and switches to Gallinari. Blatche, on the weak side, is out of position. Gallinari drives to the basket, while Datome, who was setting the screen, runs to the 3-point line and is now wide open when he receives the pass in stride and Blatche far from closing out. Datome cans the 3 and stretches Italy's lead to 24 points, with 2:50 to go in the first period.

"Italy is the type of team where if you help off your man even a little, the ball goes to the open man right away," said Arespacochaga. "If he's open for a shot, he shoots. If he doesn't, and there's a close-out, ball goes to the open man. You rotate, ball goes to the next open man. ...

"I think that was very evident against Italy when the ball kept going to the open man for the 3," said Arespacochaga. "Those are the things we can learn from -- not just our mistakes, but from what our opponents are doing."

Teams prepared for Gilas

Despite what many fans believe, Gilas did have a game plan heading into game against Italy. The team was confident that they could match up well with the Italians, who didn't have an imposing big man like a Boban Marjanovic or Nikola Jokic. Coach Yeng Guiao thought that Italy may overlook Gilas as they prepared for Serbia.

This was not the case. All the teams in Group D prepared for the Philippines' unique brand of basketball and made sure they would not be shocked like Croatia or Argentina were in 2014.

Norwood witnesses this first-hand when he saw Team Serbia pouring over scouting reports on each member of Gilas in a communal snack area their hotel in Foshan.

"You see them going through scouting reports like we're Team USA," Norwood said. "... It's kind of shocking to go down there and see how we played the game before [Italy], and see them looking at their scouting reports at our strengths and weaknesses."

The world is changing, and so are concepts around the way basketball should be played. Today, it's common to see big men shoot from long and guards setting screens to get them open. Being elite in only one skill is fast becoming a hindrance. Great teams around the world feature players who are excellent in many ways.

"Eurobasketball has always been that way," said Arespacochaga. "That's something that we can learn from as a basketball loving country: we can learn from the way that they play. You don't have to be 6-10, 7 footer to do that. You can play smart basketball at any level.

"Even in a regular 5-on-5 game, isn't it more fun to play with guys who move the ball around? We always tell our teammates, 'Hey, let's move the ball!' For other countries, that's already part of their culture. So we need more of that coming from the ground up -- less one-on-one, more playing together as a team."

Gilas was not ready

This wheeling and dealing, dizzying basketball was something Gilas was not prepared to defend. And no matter how they tried, the Philippines just couldn't solve it with only a scant few days of playing together.

Serbia's systematic approach was on display again in one play during the second quarter. The ball goes to Jokic, isolated on the low block against Aguilar. Jokic takes two hard dribbles and uses his size to get deeper.

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Jokic baits Blatche

Nikola Jokic drew Andray Blatche to leave Miroslav Raduljica which resulted in an easy score for Serbia.

Filipinos are accustomed to seeing big men bully their way to the rim. But Jokic had other ideas. He used those two strong dribbles to lure Blatche to help and leave his man, Miroslav Raduljica. As Jokic gets closer and closer to the basket, Blatche takes the bait. Jokic stops his dribble and raises the ball high above his head. Blatche sees this and scrambles to look for Raduljica.

But it's too late. Raduljica knows he will get the ball with a perfectly timed cut, so he waits for Blatche to scurry towards him and gets him off-balance by rolling to the rim. Jokic sees Raduljica and delivers a simple but effective bounce. Raduljica gets the basket plus the foul from Blatche, who makes an ill-timed swipe at the ball.

There were no flurries of athleticism from Serbia in that play, and their size wasn't the main advantage. It was simply unselfish basketball run at the highest level.

"It's just systematic," Norwood describing how their opponents play. "... Serbia is one of those teams that just wear you down. We kept our intensity level as high as we could. But they just stick to what they do and systematically break you down until you've got nothing left."


Coming tomorrow: Simple lessons from bad losses -- How Gilas moves on