No holding back
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - May 17, 2017 - 4:00pm

Gilas is expected to play up to its potential, or at least close to it, when the Philippines battles Indonesia for the SEABA title at the Smart Araneta Coliseum tonight and there won’t be any holding back.

Against Thailand last Tuesday, Gilas was held to its lowest points in the first period, 18, over four games but finished strong in giving up only 10 points in the fourth quarter as the hometown team roared to a swashbuckling 108-53 decision. Gilas looked shaky in the opening 10 minutes as Thailand kept it close and was behind only by four starting the second period. But Reyes found an energizer in Japeth Aguilar who fired 15 of his 23 points in the quarter as Gilas zoomed to a 25-point lead at the turn.

Andray Blatche started with JuneMar Fajardo in Reyes’ frontline then Aguilar came in for the Kraken, sparking the breakaway. Raymond Almazan then checked in for Blatche as Gilas went All-PBA in mauling the Thais, In the second half, Reyes combined Calvin Abueva, Terrence Romeo, Fajardo, Troy Rosario and Matthew Wright then made a platoon substitution with Aguilar, Blatche, Allein Maliksi, Jayson Castro and R. R. Pogoy. Jio Jalalon later spelled Romeo and Almazan replaced Fajardo. In the fourth quarter, Reyes experimented with Jalalon, Romeo, Abueva, Almazan and Wright. Maliksi then subbed Wright – they’re interchangeable pieces at the three-spot, both deadly perimeter gunners.

To close the game, Reyes had Wright and Maliksi together, Almazan at center, Rosario at power forward and Jalalon. The combinations are dazzling, showing Gilas’ tremendous depth. Jalalon has gained a reputation as an in-your-face, on-the-ball pressure defender in the backcourt. Abueva and Romeo seem to enjoy a chemistry so that Reyes often plays them together. Blatche is getting used to partnering with Fajardo or Aguilar. Another permutation is Blatche at four, Fajardo at five and Aguilar at three to assemble a massive frontline – this hasn’t been tried yet. Castro and Pogoy are in synch as the starting backcourt. Rosario can play either three or four, depending on the matchups. He’s dangerous either way. Wright and Maliksi can fit in with any combination. Abueva is Reyes’ unpredictable wildcard – he can strike from anywhere, meaning opponents won’t know where he’s coming from.

Defense has been Reyes’ focus from the start. Everyone in Gilas can shoot so offense isn’t a major concern. But it takes familiarity, trust and a reasonably high basketball IQ to work together on defense. So when Gilas held Thailand to 10 points in the fourth quarter, Reyes had to be happy. In the fourth period of previous games, Gilas gave up 11 points to Myanmar, 15 to Singapore and 16 to Malaysia. The tendency to relax defensively down the stretch was a habit that Reyes broke in the Thailand contest.

Indonesia can’t be taken lightly. Naturalized player Jamarr Johnson and New York-born Arki Wisnu sat out Indonesia’s first four games while awaiting clearance to play from USA Basketball and FIBA. Now that they’ve been given the go-signal, Indonesia should be a tougher nut to crack. Johnson wants to make a statement, hoping to draw an offer to play as a 6-5 import in the coming PBA Governors Cup. Wisnu, who stands a shade under 6-3, is also a candidate as an Asian import in the third conference.

Indonesia lost to the Philippines, 72-64, in the gold medal match at the SEA Games in Singapore in 2015. Back from the second-place Indonesian team in SEABA are 38-year-old point guard Mario Wuysang, pony-tailed Sandy Kurniawan, Wisnu, 6-6 Christian Renaldo Sitepu, 6-6 Adhi Putra (awaiting medical clearance to play), 6-6 Firman Nugroho and 5-8 Andakara Dhyaksa. For the Philippines, the only holdovers are Rosario and Jalalon. In 1996, Indonesia won the SEABA crown and beat the Philippines, 88-81, in the process.

A late addition to the Indonesian roster is Nugroho who was enlisted to replace injured Ponsianus Indrawan. Nugroho, 26, was the Indonesian league Defensive Player of the Year last season. After four games, three Indonesians are averaging in twin digit points – Abraham Grahita (13), Kurniawan (12.3) and Dhyaksa (10.8). Wuysang leads the team in assists, norming 5.5 while 6-5 Kevin Sitorus is the top rebounder with seven a game.

Indonesia will surely be Gilas’ toughest test in SEABA. But even with Johnson and Wisnu in harness, it doesn’t seem likely Indonesia will come close to pushing the Philippines to the limit. Expect Gilas to win by at least 20 points. That will formalize Gilas’ entry into the FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon on Aug. 10-20 but more importantly, into the first round of the home-and-away series of the Asian/Pacific qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

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