A Gilas Breakthrough
Sometimes, all one needs is a reason to believe.
Gilas 3.0 just gave every basketball-loving Filipino a reason to truly believe.
That Olympic dream is not a pipe dream after all. It is actually a possibility.
Team Pilipinas proved that much in a stunning 87–73 victory over Iran, widely considered as the top team in the tournament, markedly better than everyone else, including the hosts and perennial powerhouse South Korea.
Jayson Castro led the way yet again, unleashing the full arsenal on his way to a tournament-best 26 points. Naturalized center Andray Blatche, meanwhile, delivered an inspired and inspiring performance, scattering 18 points and more than holding his own against Iranian behemoth and fellow NBA veteran Hamed Haddadi. The dynamic duo of supersubs Terrence Romeo and Calvin Abueva provided a spark of the bench as well, the former giving instant offense and the latter giving—what else?—all-out effort and unrelenting energy.
After a tight first quarter, Iran took control in the second canto, building as much as a 10-point lead behind the steady playmaking of point guard Sajjad Mashayekhi and the dead-eye shooting of wily veteran Nikkah Bahrami. Mashayekhi, a rookie for the Iranian national team, wove his way through the Gilas defense and got to wherever he wanted, even cutting loose for a trio of uncontested lay-ins to lead Iran’s second quarter surge. The veteran Bahrami, meanwhile, was his usual steady self, knocking down open jumpers with deadly precision.
The tide shifted in the third canto, however, as Gilas 3.0 cranked up the intensity on both ends. Back-to-back three pointers by Terrence Romeo gave the nationals a 58–56 lead, and it was a lead they never relinquished as The Blur just flat out took over. Castro scored almost at will, either blowing by seemingly anyone and everyone in front of him or pulling up confidently for jumpers. Blatche, Abueva, and Romeo finished off this Gilas masterpiece, hitting timely buckets down the stretch to ward off the Iranians.
This game, indeed, was a masterpiece. It was a showcase of every thing great about the Philippine brand of hoops: the undeniable talent, the unwavering self-belief, the unbridled passion, the unrelenting persistence, the indefatigable “puso.”
More importantly, this win may very well be a harbinger of bigger things to come for Gilas 3.0. The team had taken a step back in each of its previous two games, first against Kuwait and then against Japan. Now, they have taken a giant leap forward, finally playing true to form and showing the rest of the field a glimpse of the kind of play they can unleash against the very best of Asia.
Yes, there is reason to believe in this team. Make that reasons to believe—as in plural.
There is The Blur, Jayson Castro, who has been playing out of his mind lately. The former PCU Dolphin is all but playing on a different plane, on a different speed that no one can seem to match. He was adjudged the the best point guard of Asia in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships, and he is all but reaffirming that status now.
There is this Andray Blatche, injured and still out of shape yet laying it all on the line. He displayed his versatility on offense, shooting from the outside on one possession and then driving hard on the next, totally befuddling and frustrating the flat-footed Hamed Haddadi. Even more, Blatche held his ground against the much bigger and much heftier Iranian big man, fighting for every inch, never giving up. Let the record show that Andray Blatche poured his heart and soul into this game. He led by example, and his teammates followed.
There is Calvin Abueva, who by now is firmly on the crosshairs of every team. The undersized forward has been a game-changer, a virtual lightning rod who gives the team a jolt of intensity and energy every minute he is on the floor. He has been the embodiment of “puso” all throughout this tournament, routinely grabbing rebounds against taller opponents, drawing fouls against much bigger defenders, and disrupting plays with his hustle.
There is Terrence Romeo, the gunslinger without a conscience. The young man is absolutely fearless, and he plays with a defiant swagger that somehow emboldens the team. Yes, he can shoot Gilas out of a game, but he can just as well shoot Gilas back into a game, just as he did in this game against Iran.
Even more encouraging is that extra gear on defense, which Gilas used against Iran. For stretches, the nationals moved in lockstep with one another, every player moving with a rhyme and a reason. The rotations were much crisper, the rotations much more forceful and purposeful. There were still one too many lapses, but the effort was palpable, inspiring even, from a hobbled Andray Blatche protecting the rim to Calvin Abueva racing down the court to challenge a lay-up to Gabe Norwood shadowing Nikkah Bahrami step for step.
Gilas 3.0 just beat the big bad bullies from Iran, a team widely regarded as the elite of the elite in Asian basketball. That just means that this version of Gilas can beat anybody on any given day.
Yes, it is time to truly believe.
The improbable may not be so improbable after all.
Martin is a copy editor for the University Press of First Asia. He is an avid sports fan. He used to keep a sports blog at http://pinoysportsnet.blogspot.com/.