Gilas Pilipinas downed rival Korea for the second time in five days with a well-earned 82-77 win Sunday. With that, the Filipinos swept the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers in Angeles, Pampanga, gaining much-welcome confidence and experience just in time for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and Asia Cup. But what else stood out from these qualifiers? ESPN5.com's Chuck Araneta breaks it down.
1. No one on this team is afraid of the moment. No one.
I know that we shouldn't be surprised anymore at what this version of Gilas Pilipinas could accomplish. After all, this young squad comprised of college students, and a couple as well still in high school, were able to hang tough with Korea in their first game and ultimately won it at the buzzer.
So in the rematch four days later, the thought was that an impressive and gritty performance would be more than enough to make everyone happy, regardless of the outcome.
But the way it's looking now, moral victories don't seem to be in the vocabulary of coach Tab Baldwin and these boys. You can see this in the way they weathered Korea's 9-0 start to the game, leaning on Dwight Ramos' composure and grace under pressure to respond with an 8-0 run of their own to get things under control. Defensively, they forced their foes to 28.6% shooting from the field, a frigid statistic when you consider just how many elite shooters there are on the opposing side.
And when the game was tight down the stretch, which team came up with all the big stops and then executed at the other end? It was the Philippines. Team captain Isaac Go hit a clutch triple, seemingly his signature shot, to give Gilas some breathing room, while Ange Kouame and Kai Sotto, puppies in the international game, fought tooth and nail with Ra Gun-a despite giving up a lot in heft and strength.
Of course, we all know the key play that essentially won the game: a broken possession in the last two minutes that led to several players diving, William Navarro hustling to save the ball from going out of bounds, and Navarro's no-look pass getting into Justine Baltazar's hands for a thunderous throwdown.
That was seriously wonderful stuff for those who have high hopes for this program. The passion, desire, and discipline were all there. Now, it's a matter of seeing whether the ceiling we have for this team could get higher and higher.
2. Who's the man at the point?
For all the positives and praise we deservedly threw at the team, one thing to remember is that it's not all perfect. As with any team, especially one as young as this, there remains a lot to improve.
The first and foremost of which is deciding who the best point guard is moving forward. SJ Belangel, the hero in the first game of this window, was thrown into the fire in starting for injured erstwhile primary playmaker Matt Nieto. Give credit to him for making lots of key plays down the stretch in both wins against Korea, but there were also several possessions wherein the offense was going nowhere for majority of the shot clock before a hasty drive or challenged shot was attempted.
Time and again, Gilas was bailed out by several offensive rebounds that led to second chance points, which masked struggles in the halfcourt set.
Could that be chalked up to the Philippines' offense, or Korea's defense? Maybe a little bit of both. The Koreans mixed up man-to-man and zone defense to confuse the Filipinos. Props then to Gilas who, more often than not, made the right read and attacked the right spot. They were dared to shoot from outside, and they did exactly that, shooting a blistering 14-of-37 from the perimeter.
Is Belangel the answer at the point, or would Ramos assume more of the playmaking duties, like Baldwin had alluded to in his post-game interview? It would be interesting to see how this shakes out.
3. Yes, do get excited for Gilas in the OQT. But please, manage your expectations.
Do we want the Philippines in the Olympics? Of course. Do we have a chance to make it, despite taking on world no. 5 Serbia and no. 19 Dominican Republic? Bilog ang bola, anything is possible.
But let's be realistic here: Serbia and Dominican Republic have national teams that have had decades of experience playing the international game and also have multiple players who are world-class. Serbia gave us a glimpse of what their power is like when they routed Gilas, 126-67, in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Dominican Republic, on the other hand, may not be making as much noise, but is still ranked 12 spots higher than the Philippines.
Coach Tab is a realist. He knows the job in front of this all-cadet squad. Tellingly, though, we could see their decision not to add any other players to this squad that played in Clark to mean that deep down, they're confident they could compete even at the level of Serbia and the Dominican Republic. Remember, Gilas had always worked best when they were the underdogs, ready to shock the world.
Who knows what would happen in Belgrade, Serbia from June 30 to July 1? One thing we do know is that Gilas is in the business of surprising doubters and defying expectations. Who's to say they couldn't do it again?