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The FIBA Asia Finals: A return to glory
by rick olivares
It’s official. The silver medal finish of 2013 is no fluke.
The Philippines used to play for pride and its return to the basketball firmament. Now, to cement that, it’s for FIBA Asia gold and an outright ticket to the Rio Olympics next year.
Think about this incredible journey. In 2013, after 40 years, the FIBA Asia Championship was back in Manila. While Nationals were unable to duplicate the gold medal feat of its forebears, that silver was just as good as gold.
The big win back then was over Korea. This 2015, it’s against Iran. Now, as the Philippines is taking big names and kicking butt, reshaping the FIBA rankings with one impressive performance after another, there remains one more stumbling block, one old and familiar foe, who was actually the one that dominated Asian basketball for decades — China.
Until the rise of Iran and other West Asian nations in the last decade, China ruled Asian basketball. They supplanted the Filipinos in the World Championships and Olympics. They even sent a couple of players to the NBA.
The cool fact about the FIBA Asia Finals is that it features two teams that defeated the defending champions. Convincingly, I might add.
To be the champ, you have to beat the champ.
And now for the first time since 1985 when the two countries last squared off for FIBA Asia gold (where the Philippines defeated China in the final game of the round robin semifinals, 82-72, they’re back. And someone is going to be the champion and is going to Rio.
China is the last undefeated team in the tournament and they tote an 8-0 record. They also own the head-to-head match up in FIBA Asia, 9-3.
The 2015 FIBA Asia Finals will surely be electric. The Changsa Gym will be packed and rocking; something the Filipinos know all to well as they utilized that homecourt advantage to the hilt in 2013. This time, the crowd will be jeering them.
And in my opinion, they will need all the vocal support they can get. Even if China is 8-0, I thought they really hit their stride with their last match of the second round, an 89-65 win over Qatar. Furthermore, they have only one player who scores in double digits — Yi Jianlian who averages 17.4 points per game. That could spell trouble for them if no one else can pick up the slack.
It is a young team that they have paraded here in Changsa. There are only four holdovers from the 2013 games — Yi, Guo Ailun, Zhou Peng, and Wang Zhelin.
In the Manila tournament, Yi only played five matches and averaged 17.4 points while Wang Zhelin added 10.2 markers of his own. Their own living legend, Wang Zhizhi suited up in Manila for his last hurrah and he averaged 13.4 points and led China when Yi didn’t play.
Granted China plays as a team as their scoring is more or less scattered and with every player chipping in points. But they are young.
However, the Philippines brings a relatively veteran team to the finals. While there are only four Manila veterans in Jayson Castro, Ranidel De Ocampo, Gabe Norwood, and Marc Pingris, Asi Taulava, Sonny Thoss, and Dondon Hontiveros have had previous and extensive international experience. Two newcomers, Terrence Romeo and Calvin Abueva have given a good account of themselves and have been sparkplugs in more ways than one.
In 2013, former national coach Chot Reyes ensured that his squad earned a lot of big game experience. The Chinese don’t have much of that… yet.
Looking at how they match up statistically, the Philippines has the edge in most categories.
Tab Baldwin’s boys are second in the competition in scoring with 88.3 points a game. China is fourth in the tournament with an average of 84.9 points in eight matches.
The Philippines hauls down 46.9 rebounds a game. China is sixth in rebounding with 41.5 boards a game.
China holds its own however.
No team is deadlier from three-point country than China. In eight games, they shot 39.7%. The Philippines isn’t far behind with a 36.2% accuracy rate. The onus is on the Chinese to get off their shots a lot quicker because the Philippines is one of the better defending teams especially from the perimeter.
What China does so well is to go to the free throw line. They get 17.0 points from the 15-foot line every game. The Filipinos are three full points behind.
Assist-wise, China has a 13.6 average to the Filipinos 11.3.
Looking at the match up, I’d say that veteran experience of the Filipinos will counter the homecourt advantage and youth of China. The Filipinos usually count three double digit scorers a game. Aside from the one-two punch of Andray Blatche and Jayson Castro, there’s Romeo. Against Japan, Romeo faltered, his first poor outing of the tournament. Hontiveros though, greatly picked up the slack.
It is easy to say that China will have a handful. But they will be buoyed by their crowd and home support and that counts for a lot.