The Philippines went 1-2 in their three tuneup games against Ivory Coast, Montenegro, and Mexico, with a victory over Ivory Coast followed up by losses to Montenegro and Mexico. For the first time since Gilas head coach Chot Reyes got the band together, the Gilas Pilipinas pool is complete. However, the value of these three contests goes beyond the complete lineup as the insights from these last few games have arguably been more useful than the contests they had in their training camp in Europe.
On the surface, it seems like slow starts are a thing of the past for the Philippines. Against Ivory Coast and Montenegro, Gilas held three-point leads after the opening quarter, a stark contrast from the deficits they faced in their tuneup games in Europe. Meanwhile, Gilas Pilipinas was ahead for much of the first quarter against the Mexicans and only fell behind with less than three minutes left in the opening quarter. Falling behind early may not be ideal for the Philippines, especially when facing teams with more firepower and sophisticated systems.
Sustaining their effort for the succeeding quarters may now be the greater issue at hand. Gilas couldn’t maintain their first-half effort in their tuneup game against Montenegro in the second half, where Montenegro used a 32-point third quarter to pull away and earn the victory. Mexico also slipped past Gilas Pilipinas in the second half, using a 14-4 run to end the third quarter with a 69-63 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Games are rarely won on the back of one strong quarter and the difference between victory and defeat could depend on who the Philippines carries onto the final roster.
Circumstances will likely call for Gilas to bring their four big men in June Mar Fajardo, Japeth Aguilar, AJ Edu, and Kai Sotto into their final roster. The tough battles against the giants of Ivory Coast, Montenegro, and Mexico had to offer lent credence to how big men can still be a premium in a sport that has embraced small ball. Each offers a different skill set and Fajardo’s offense, combined with the youth of Edu and Sotto could be key. Aguilar’s presence shouldn’t be discounted as he can still be effective in spurts.
Depth at the frontcourt will be crucial when Gilas Pilipinas takes on the Dominican Republic, Angola, and Italy, especially on the defensive end. The game against Montenegro in particular revealed how the Philippines will need to work on containing NBA-caliber bigs like Nikola Vučević. Fouls will come in bunches if they don’t win the rebounding battle and keep the likes of Vučević, the Dominican Republic’s Karl-Anthony Towns, and Angola’s Bruno Fernando off their preferred spots. Besides, Vučević, Towns, and Fernando will be the least of their worries should they advance to the next round.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of perimeter talent with Gilas, however what is limited is the playing time they can all get. Dwight Ramos continues to be a steady presence, while Scottie Thompson, whose chances of making the final roster were in jeopardy after suffering a metacarpal fracture in his right hand, has made a quick recovery and reportedly played well in the tuneup games. Of course, this is on top of Jordan Clarkson, who continues to work his way to game shape.
Reyes and his staff may have seen how the guards and the forwards meshed with one another and will use that as a major consideration over more popular choices. Resting Clarkson against Mexico also allowed them to get longer looks at the likes of RR Pogoy, Kiefer Ravena, and CJ Perez. Ball movement remains his priority, but more valuable could be those who aren’t afraid of the big moment, because what’s the use of ball movement if one can’t perform and move the ball effectively.
With just days to go before their opening game against the Dominican Republic, Gilas Pilipinas has made strides compared to when they began their training camp back in June. Facing three teams bound for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup has been a boon for them as they got what head coach Chot Reyes wanted all along: learning experiences. Now it’s up to them to turn those learnings into something Filipinos will be proud of.