Feeling the Blues
False optimism or not, Coach Tab Baldwin said that Gilas Pilipinas has a puncher’s chance to beat fifth-ranked France should the planets align for the nationals.
The planets did not align last night, though, as France overcame a game and determined Gilas Pilipinas 93–84 behind a combined 48 points from NBA superstar Tony Parker and Euroleague MVP Nando De Colo.
Despite the loss, it sure seemed that the planets were lining up perfectly—for one scintillating quarter at least—as Baldwin had hoped for. Energized by a mammoth white-wearing crowd, Gilas Pilipinas burst through the gates with fire and brimstone, taking the fight right to the their fancied rivals from France. Behind the exquisite playmaking of naturalized center Andray Blatche and playmaker extraordinaire Jayson Castro and an aggressive, in-your-face defense, Team Pilipinas built as much as a 10-point lead, 28–18, before ending the first with a seemingly unthinkable 30–22 advantage.
Then the Les Bleus of France started asserting themselves, imposing both their style and their will on Gilas the way elite teams do. They matched the intensity and energy of the Filipinos. They clamped down defensively, stonewalling the paint with their size and length and smothering the playmakers of Gilas with their quick feet and active hands. They also started humming on offense, executing patiently, if not beautifully, led by the heralded pair of De Colo and Parker.
By the three-minute mark of the second canto, much of Gilas Pilipinas’s ten-point lead was gone as Castro and company struggled to manufacture points against the suffocating defense of Parker and company. The Les Bleus finally retook the lead for good, 41–40, at the tailend of the quarter behind the exploits of De Colo, who finished the first half with 18 points.
In the third quarter, France showed why it is ranked as the fifth best basketball team in the world, combining crafty playmaking with disciplined but disruptive defense. The Les Bleus also started forcing turnovers, quickly turning them to easy baskets—notably, two rim-rattling dunks from center Kim Tillie—as they started to pull away from the seemingly befuddled Filipinos. France built as much as a 17-point lead in the third canto, before settling for a 77–66 advantage going to the fourth.
Gilas, though, refused to fold. Andray Blatche, bothered by a bum ankle and saddled with four fouls, started bulldozing his way inside even as guards Jayson Castro and Terrence Romeo began manufacturing points both inside and out. The relentless duo of Troy Rosario and Gabe Norwood also had a hand in the Filipinos’ fight back, time and again grabbing offensive rebounds and keeping loose balls alive. A Gabe Norwood stickback with 3:15 remaining inched Gilas closer to Les Bleus, 85–81, fanning the hopes of an upset yet again.
Ultimately, the French did not cave in, displaying the type of poise and calm that the truly elite teams possess. With the shot clock running down and the score at 85–81, NBA veteran Boris Diaw showed the crafty playmaking he is best known for, eluding three defenders on his way to a sweet lay-in over the outstretched arms of Troy Rosario to douse cold water on Gilas’s searing late-game run. Nando De Colo and Kim Tillie then finished off the Filipinos, adding six more unanswered points to put the game out of reach.
Now, if this game is any indication, Gilas Pilipinas will have to play near-flawless basketball if they are to win this tournament. The margin for error is slim to none, and yes, Gilas might need nothing short of a miracle—a planetary alignment, perhaps?—to punch a ticket to Rio.
Consider the gauntlet that Gilas must go through to get that golden ticket: If they get past the Tall Blacks of New Zealand (ranked 21st in the world) later tonight, they will have to beat either the Giant Men of Turkey (8th) or Team Canada (26th), bannered by NBA champion Tristan Thompson and NBA standout Cory Joseph. Should Gilas march on to the finals, they will likely face the Les Bleus of France once more, only stronger with NBA star Nicolas Batum available already.
As if that challenge is not daunting enough, Gilas will have to get its act together now, barely 24 hours removed from the heartbreaking loss to France. The national team will have less than a day to correct the errors they committed last night. They will have less than a day to work on their schemes and plays. They will have less than a day to figure out ways to score over taller men and defend them on the other end. They will have less than a day to get their hearts and minds right back in.
The odds most certainly are not in favor of Gilas Pilipinas. That does not mean we should stop believing.
Miracles do happen. Planets do align.
There is still a sliver of hope.
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/.