Ready to do or die
Assistant coach Ryan Gregorio was putting the final touches on a detailed scouting report on China while on his way to a team meeting when he got the call that told him all his hard work would go down the drain.
Instead of getting frustrated, Gregorio, a champion coach in the Philippine Basketball Association, smiled.
Whipping out his tablet, he began the groundwork for a scouting report on Kazakhstan.
“I was down to the tendencies of the last three players of China,” Gregorio said. He then added, with a hint of playful laughter in his eyes: “Can’t complain, though.”
Every member of Gilas Pilipinas was glad the team was smack right in the middle of its original path. The Fiba Asia championship road was thought to be irreversibly detoured after a painful loss to Chinese Taipei early in the classification round. But now the Filipinos were back on track. Top the classification round? Check. Take on Kazakhstan in the first day of the knockout phase, the quarterfinals? Check.
Now it was time to tick off yet another to-do: Book a semifinal slot to push the country’s bid to make it back to the world stage for the first time in decades.
“From the first day that we got the [results of the] draw, we knew that if things went according to plan, we would get Kazakhstan in the quarterfinals,” said coach Chot Reyes. That, he said, was the reason why he pushed for one exhibition match against the rising Central Asian power before the tournament started.
And so on Day 8 of the tournament, a rest day, Gilas Pilipinas pooled the lessons learned from that exhibition match.
Chief of those lessons was the need to contain naturalized player Jerri Jonson, a cat-quick playmaker who injected a dose of athleticism into the oft-robotic squad.
“He is a perfect fit for them,” said former national player Olsen Racela, an assistant coach in the PBA who moonlighted as a TV analyst during the tournament. “Kazakhstan has never really had a point guard as skilled and as athletic who can set their guys up.”
Even Reyes knew that the key to containing Kazakhstan would be to contain Jonson.
“The No. 1 thing for us was to be able to stay in front of him,” Reyes said. “Also, we do not want [forward Anton] Pomoronov to get started [hitting shots].”
Jonson became the No. 1 player on Gregorio’s scouting report. The American was also top of mind for Gilas Pilipinas playmaker LA Tenorio.
“Right this moment, he is all I can think of,” the Ginebra star in the PBA said a day before going up against Kazakhstan. “If I get the chance to play [in the quarterfinals], my sole focus will be trying to stop Jonson.”
Jonson was going to be a slippery defensive assignment for Gilas. And Kazakhstan was a perfect banana-peel foe.
The way the race to the Fiba World Cup in Spain was constructed, Gilas Pilipinas could not, in any way, look past the Kazakhs.
“I was worried about Kazakhstan,” said Reyes. Jong Uichico, an assistant coach like Gregorio, called the Kazakhs “tough, very physical.”
“Besides,” said Reyes, “this is the most pressured game. If you reach the semifinals, you have two chances to go to the World Cup. In the quarterfinals, if you lose, that’s it.”
The Fiba Asia championship awards three slots to the World Cup. That means a team that loses in the semifinals can still book a trip to Spain by winning the playoff for the bronze medal. A slip against Kazakhstan would end it all for the Filipinos.
“For us, it’s win at all cost,” said Tenorio.
It certainly didn’t help the Philippine cause that Gilas was coming off a poor game against Hong Kong, where the team needed to overextend a hurting Marcus Douthit against a basketball minnow that played with the predatory instincts of a shark. In fact, forward Marc Pingris waxed poetic about how the team needed to bounce back from that poor stint against Hong Kong.
“Kailangan linisin namin ang dumi na ginawa namin (We need to clean the mess we created),” he said.
Gary David also had his own personal mess to clean up. During the exhibition match against the former Soviet republic, David struggled from the field, a dry spell that spilled into the Fiba Asia championship. David spent the rest day fine-tuning his shooting with Reyes, who gave him a few technical pointers to work on.
“You’re jumping higher than normal on your jump shot,” Reyes told him. “It’s like you’re trying too hard.”
Mentally, David needed to get away from all of the Asian championship buzz. He took a quick trip to his hometown in Bataan to clear his mind. The only thing he kept thinking of was the fact that he wanted Kazakhstan as a quarterfinal foe.
“It was against them that my struggles started,” he said.
He wasn’t the only person who wanted Kazakhstan.
This was the quarterfinal bout Gilas Pilipinas had targeted. A couple of bounce-back victories to offset a loss to Chinese Taipei plus a heavy dose of luck put the Filipinos where they wanted to be once the knockout phase began: Out of China’s way and in the path of the Jonson-led Kazakhstan.
But wanting Kazakhstan is one thing. Beating them is another.
“In the end,” said swingman Larry Fonacier, “We still have to take care of business.”
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