There was a reason Justin Brownlee was finally naturalized after years and years of clamor from the Philippine basketball community: To win.
Jordan Clarkson was always going to be a only-when-available player and that was only if there were events related to the FIBA World Cup. Gilas Pilipinas needed someone who was on-call and ready for events of a smaller scale that nonetheless matter. Moreover, whoever it was couldn’t be a pushover since even the Philippines’ regional peers were throwing their weight around after decades of playing catch up.
Brownlee’s performance against Indonesia in the semifinals of the 2023 SEA Games Men’s 5×5 Basketball competition was further proof that this was the right choice.
Gilas was down for much of the contest, but when it was gut-check time, Brownlee took over. The Barangay Ginebra Gin King (when rules permit), who had been suffering from a myriad of issues under adverse playing conditions, powered through the Indonesian defense with nifty drives and knocked down back-breaking 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. Not even the ice packs on his shoulders could cool him off.
Brownlee was the spark the Philippines needed to take an 84-76 win over Indonesia not just to avenge the loss in the 2021 SEA Games, but to give Gilas Pilipinas another shot at Cambodia for vengeance and a gold medal. The match will take on extra personal meaning for Brownlee, as the loss to the Cambodians was arguably his worst performance as a member of Gilas and it’s one he would like to atone for.
The 34 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals, and two blocks Brownlee finished with against the Indonesians only told a part of the story because his energy and presence proved to be crucial in keeping the game close and finishing it off with a win. Those things can inspire a team, especially one that is tired, sore, and looking for answers.
Besides, the intangibles will be as important as those that are tangible when the Philippines will take on Cambodia and its bevy of naturalized players. The players, coaches, and the venue are pretty much the same, but both teams come with some wear and tear from what has been a grind of a tournament. Of course, the local Cambodians were the only ones who hardly broke a sweat, but they won’t likely be called upon with a gold medal on the line.
For Gilas Pilipinas, though, the fatigue is real. Playing the games themselves was only the tip of the iceberg as deplorable court conditions, the weather, and of course, playing in a hostile environment can all take its toll on the body. Granted, hostile environments shouldn’t faze great players but at the end of the day, athletes are human too.
So what’s the game plan for Gilas head coach Chot Reyes? Well it might as well be playing smart. Athleticism certainly limits the chances of mismatches and iso-ball and predictable offensive sets will only play into the favor of Cambodia. Then again, that same athleticism can only do much when a defense is out of sync and falls prey to a bevy of passes.
In their preliminary match against the Cambodians, Gilas got some points when they would catch Cambodia’s defense falling asleep or when they got some leverage inside. Reyes may have to change his lineup into one that can create chaos and disrupt, but more importantly, he will have to motivate his players to focus on the game at hand and not the previous result. After all, another loss might see his seat get even warmer with a few months to go before the FIBA World Cup.
Gilas Pilipinas averted what would have been their worst finish in SEA Games Men’s 5×5 Basketball history thanks to a Herculean effort from Justin Brownlee against Indonesia. Brownlee may need to do that as well against Cambodia and if he completes this task of John Wick proportions, the wait would very well have been worth it for him and for the Philippines.