The Final Four
There are no easy paths to Rio. And if this game is any indication, that road moving forward will be tougher to trek, lined all the more with roadblocks of all kinds.
Andray Blatche and Jayson Castro would have none of that, however, as the two teamed up to tow Gilas 3.0 past Lebanon, 82–70, in a game decided only in the final two minutes. Castro was his usual self—aggressive but in control, assertive but unselfish. He was scorching in the first quarter, scoring 12 of the nationals’ 20 points, and masterful in the third period, scattering 10 points, including a personal 7–0 run that turned a slim 39–36 lead into a 46–36 cushion. Blatche, for his part, was a difference maker, his play inspired and inspiring once more, as it was against Iran and India. The naturalized reinforcement was an all-around force, scattering 24 points on top of 17 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks.
Team Pilipinas also got a big boost from Marc Pingris, who was sensational on defense yet again and opportunistic on offense. The Pinoy Sakuragi came away with three massive buckets down the stretch—all teardrops in the paint—to help Gilas 3.0 finally fend off Lebanon and advance to the semifinals.
The win, again, was not easy, as the nationals had to overcome not only a fearless and fired-up Lebanese 5 but also an avalanche of fouls, an off-night from Ranidel de Ocampo, another injury scare to Blatche, a paltry 9-for-30 clip from the arc, zero production from the off-guard slot, and later on, the jeering pro-Chinese crowd that howled in collective delight every time Gilas missed a shot or committed an error.
Adversity, though, is nothing new to this team. And just as they did against Iran, the nationals found ways to rise above the challenges, from The Blur buzzing through the lane for his patented kamikaze drives or pulling up from deep for dagger threes, to ‘Dray sashaying his way to the hoop to Pingris carving up space in the paint for teardrops to Terrence Romeo making tough shots to Gabe Norwood shadowing Lebanon main man Jasmon Youngblood.
This victory, admittedly, was not the prettiest of wins for Gilas 3.0, but they will take it nonetheless, as will the millions of basketball crazy Filipinos all around the world. The swagger and self-belief are encouraging; the resolve and tenacity, inspiring. The play, however, needs to get a whole lot better with the stakes a whole lot higher. With the games now do-or-die, every possession matters, both on offense and defense. That means that the nationals must limit their mistakes on each end—no more unforced turnovers and quick triggers on offense, no more blown coverage and slow closeouts on defense. That means the ball must move offensively, with the players willing to defer to one another to get open shots. That means playing honest defense, with the hands active, the feet more active, and the mind most active, to avoid ticky-tack fouls.
Later tonight, Gilas 3.0 will dive right back into action, this time against a team it had vanquished earlier in the tournament: Japan. That fact, however, does not matter one bit now. The game will start at 0–0, and Japan will be more than ready. They Japanese know that all it takes for them to book a seat to the finals is one torrid shooting display, one near-perfect game. And that more than makes them a dangerous foil.
Team Pilipinas better be ready tonight.
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/.