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2024 Summer Olympics

Midlife Halftime: Uphill but not impossible mission for Gilas Pilipinas in OQT


“The task ahead is not impossible. It’s hard, it’s tough, but it’s not impossible.”

With this pronouncement, Tim Cone has defined the mission of Gilas Pilipinas.

Road to Riga

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Gilas Pilipinas will be in Riga, Latvia, from July 2-7 for one of the four 2024 FIBA Paris Olympic Qualifying Tournaments.

Ranked 37th in the world, Gilas Pilipinas will need to win at least one game against either host and world No. 6 Latvia or No. 23 Georgia in Group A to secure a spot in the crossover semifinals against the top 2 finishers of Group B, which includes world No. 12 Brazil, No. 17 Montenegro, and No. 68 Cameroon.

The winners of the crossover semifinals will contest the lone ticket in Riga to the Paris Olympics.

The re-entry of Cone as the Gilas Pilipinas tactician has injected renewed energy into the program’s culture and the players’ mentality – something that was palpably lacking in the previous iteration of the national team.

Cone has the results to show for it, ending a 61-year-old gold medal drought in the Asian Games held in China last October. He then notched two wins in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifying window last February by an average margin of 41.5 points.

He will now attempt to end two more streaks.

Ending Long Droughts

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The last time the Philippines saw action in men’s basketball at the Olympics was 52 years ago in the 1972 Munich Games.

Moreover, no Philippine national team has won against a European national team in over two decades.

The RP Selecta squad was coached by Jong Uichico and featured Danny Seigle, Asi Taulava, Erik Menk, Olsen Racela, Kenneth Duremdes, and Jeffrey Cariaso.

They nipped Ukraine 100-98 in the RP-Euro Basketball Challenge, a 3-day pocket tournament held in Sondrio, Italy, in 2002.

RP Selecta lost their first game to Latvia 54-79 and their second game to Italy 56-99.

Gilas Pilipinas will open their campaign in the Olympic qualifiers on July 3 against a Latvian squad that was treated by their fans to a hero’s welcome after finishing in 5th place during the FIBA World Cup in Manila.

Expect the 11,200-capacity Arena Riga to be sold out during the home team’s games.

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There will be little time to recuperate for Cone’s troops, who head back to the court the next day against Georgia.

Even with 7-foot-2 Kai Sotto, 6-foot-10 Junmar Fajardo, and 6-foot-9 Japeth Aguilar, Gilas Pilipinas will still be hard-pressed to counter the agile and versatile bigs of Latvia and Georgia.

AJ Edu, with his height, strength, and mobility, would have been a good foil to the European frontliners.

Cone, not known to dwell on who is missing, will have to figure out how to work with the cards he is dealt.

Twin Towers

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Sotto and Fajardo have proven they can score in the international arena.

Fajardo dropped 16 against Karl Anthony Towns and the Dominican Republic during the FIBA World Cup.

In their friendly against Turkey on Thursday (Friday morning, Philippine time), he registered 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds even against two Turkish 7-footers, Sertac Sanli and Ercan Osmani.

The Kraken again reached double figures against Poland, which featured Panathinaikos’ 7-foot-1 center Aleksander Balcerowski.

Meanwhile, Sotto has blossomed under Cone’s tutelage.

In the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, Sotto finally got his touches as Cone made him an integral part of the team offense.

The youngster delivered 15.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in 22 minutes of play. This was a stark contrast to the World Cup, where he logged just 14 minutes and had less than four attempts per game.

The question is if Sotto and Fajardo can protect the rim and not get lost in the often dizzying offensive schemes of European squads.

There is a reason Cone preferred Angelo Kouame instead of Fajardo on the floor when the game was on the line in the Asian Games.

The former Ateneo center could defend the ball screen, then recover on the shooters or clog the lanes.

Fajardo, on the other hand, may not be able to keep in step when the Latvians pick and pop from outside or the Georgians slide quickly and with brute force to the basket.

Sotto will need to prove he cannot be pushed around easily by heftier Europeans.

Euro Ball

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(C) FIBA.basketball

The two opponents of Gilas Pilipinas present different challenges to Cone and his coaching staff composed of Uichico, Sean Chambers, and Richard del Rosario.

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In the FIBA World Cup, Latvia’s frontline – 6-foot-10 Davis Bertans of the Charlotte Hornets, 6-foot-10 Rolands Šmits, and 6-foot-8 Andrejs Gražulis – sank an average of 5.7 threes per game, which could easily cost Gilas Pilipinas close to 18 points.

Japeth Aguilar will likely be tasked with the tough defensive assignments.

Carl Tamayo has to be a threat both on the offensive and defensive ends as a stretch four who could play alongside Fajardo or Sotto.

Cone has been experimenting with playing Fajardo and Sotto together in certain stretches of the game.

However, the Gilas brain trust is aware that this is a twin tower that Gilas Pilipinas cannot have on the floor for an extended period because it slows down the team in both transition and defense.

Turkey torched Gilas Pilipinas with 14 triples.

Poland sank 11 threes out of 24 attempts for a 42-percent clip from outside.

On one hand, it exposed the inability of Gilas to close out on shooters. On the other hand, it afforded Cone a simulation of potential scenarios when they face Latvia, a volume three-point shooting team.

Latvia attempted 32.6 threes per game in the World Cup, or a total of 261 attempts in eight games, the most among all teams.

Ten players shot at least one triple per outing.

Bertans had the most attempts at 7.9 per game from three. Latvia averaged 31.5 attempts from the two-point area, which means they shot more from three.

What makes Latvia scary is that they still ranked 2nd overall among all teams in the World Cup in three-point accuracy, sinking 42.1-percent of their attempts or 13.8 threes made per game.

This was made possible by their ability to spot open shooters through their ball movement. Latvia dished out 24.4 assists, the highest among all teams that played eight games in the tournament.

The Gilas perimeter defenders will find themselves constantly on the move to chase the likes of 6-foot-8 small forward and former Brooklyn Net Rodions Kurucs, his brother 6-foot-4 guard Arturs, and returning high-scoring wingman Rihards Lomažs, who missed the World Cup due to injury.

2023-FIBA-World-Cup-Qualifiers-Georgia-vs-Italy-Goga-Bitadze Midlife Halftime: Uphill but not impossible mission for Gilas Pilipinas in OQT 2024 Summer Olympics Bandwagon Wire Basketball Gilas Pilipinas  - philippine sports news

(C) FIBA.basketball

Unlike Latvia, Georgia does not rely much on threes.

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During the FIBA World Cup, the team made just 6.6 threes per outing on a not-so-impressive 28.9-percent clip.

But Georgia is at its most dangerous when it puts the ball in the low block in the hands of 6-foot-11 Goga Bitadze of the Orlando Magic, 6-foot-9 power forward Sandro Mamukelashvili of the San Antonio Spurs, and 6-foot-9 Toko Shengelia, who like to pound it on the inside.

All three averaged in double digits in the World Cup. Gilas will be relieved to find out that 7-foo-t1 center Giorgi Shermadini is out with a rib injury.

Fajardo and Sotto will have to defend the Georgian bigs while staying away from foul trouble. Against Turkey, the two Filipino centers were both plagued with fouls.

Backcourt Woes?

FIBA-ACQ-JUSTIN-BROWNLEE-DWIGHT-RAMOS-9780 Midlife Halftime: Uphill but not impossible mission for Gilas Pilipinas in OQT 2024 Summer Olympics Bandwagon Wire Basketball Gilas Pilipinas  - philippine sports news

Georgia will be fielding a new naturalized player in Joe Thomasson, a 6-foot-4 American playmaker. Georgia often taps a point guard as its naturalized player since it already has a solid group of bigs to patrol the inside.

Dwight Ramos and Chris Newsome will have their hands full containing not only Thomasson but also Latvia’s emerging star Arturs Zagars, who was named to last year’s FIBA World Cup All-Second Team.

On top of that, the two will have to contribute to the scoring duties. Against Turkey, only Justin Brownlee and Fajardo scored in double figures. Gilas will need more firepower to keep pace with both Latvia and Georgia.

Cone’s Expertise

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Cone is the winningest coach in PBA history and an Asian Games gold medalist for a reason. He is a master of preparation and adjustment, an astute observer, student, and practitioner of the game.

He will undoubtedly get Gilas Pilipinas to a level that would give them the best possible chances in the Olympic qualifiers.

The task in Riga will be tough, but Cone might just be able to pull off a few tricks that could surprise the Gilas opponents and even the Filipino fans.

Catch the games on the Smart LiveStream App starting July 4, 12:00 AM. It’s FREE and OPEN to all networks!

Download the app now: https://smrt.ph/livestream. You can also stream via web browser at https://smart.com.ph/livestream.

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