Go, Team Pilipinas

By Henry Liao August 29,2019
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Go, Team Pilipinas

By Henry Liao August 29,2019
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“DEFEAT is a state of mind. No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality.” — Martial arts icon Bruce Lee.

With that belief, Team Philippines will run roughshod over the opposition and romp away with the gold medal in the 18th FIBA Basketball World Cup to be held in the People’s Republic of China from August 31 to September 15 with an unbeaten slate.

A record-setting 32 countries are entered in the quadrennial competitions, which have been divided into eight groups (A-H) of four teams each in the single round-robin preliminary phase.

The Filipinos are bracketed with Serbia, Italy and Angola in Group D and will play their games at the Foshan International Sports and Cultural Center in city of Foshan in central Guangdong province.

Our boys will meet Italy on August 31, Serbia on September 2 and Angola on September 4. A herculean task it will be to advance to the second round (eighth-quarterfinals) but why worry at this stage? The team standings still read 0-0 for every team and unless beaten once or twice, a podium finish is still a possibility.

Italy has veteran NBA players Danilo Gallinari (Oklahoma City Thunder, 6-foot-10 forward) and Marco Belinelli (San Antonio Spurs, 6-foot-5 swingman) in its lineup and naturalized player Jeff Brooks (Olimpia Milano, 6-foot-8 forward), who went undrafted in the NBA in 2011 following his stint at Penn State University.

The Italians are counting on a veteran roster with Gallinari (31), Belinelli (33) and Brooks (30) all aged 30 or over.

Gallinari previously played for the New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers (2017-19) in his first 10 NBA seasons (he was sidelined for the entire 2013-14 campaign due to an ACL injury) before being shipped to the Thunder last month. Gallo, which is Italian for “rooster,” underwent an appendectomy last August 4 and may not be in full strength during the games.

Belinelli earned an NBA title ring in 2014 as a valuable reserve with the San Antonio Spurs. Brooks is married to an Italian woman and they have a son. He officially became an Italian in September of last year.

A two-time World Cup gold medalist in 1983 and 1999 and a bronze medalist in 2003, Italy registered an 8-4 record during the 12-game Europe World Cup qualifiers that were topped by Lithuania (11-1), Greece (11-1), Spain (10-2) and France (10-2).

Serbia, which is rated No. 2 in the latest FIBA World Cup rankings just behind the two-time defending titlist United States, boasts of a tall-laden roster with four active NBA players, led by inside-outside threat Nikola Jokic, a 24-year-old 7-foot center from the Denver Nuggets.

Next to the Greek Freak Giannis Antetokuonmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, the youthful 24-year-old Jokic is the most prominent NBA player in the World Cup as most of the league’s top American stars, including All-NBA First Team selections James Harden (Houston), Paul George (Houston) and Stephen Curry (Golden State), declined to represent the U.S. team due to health and personal issues. Their belief is that the event is only a second-rate attraction in the international basketball scene and Americans have been taught through the years to value the Olympics in a way the FIBA World Cup cannot match. (Watch out for the participation of Harden, George, Damian Lillard (Portland), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn) and perhaps even LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) in next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.)

Of the five members of the 2018-19 All-NBA First Team, only Antetokuonmpo and Jokic will suit up in the World Cup. In addition, only third-teamers Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics) of the U.S. and Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz) of France are strutting their wares in China among the three All-NBA squads.
Jokic was a second-round pick (No. 41 overall) by the Nuggets in the 2014 draft but played for Serbia in the Adriatic League during the 2014-15 season. He has since made huge strides since joining the Nuggets in the NBA in 2015-16.

During the 2018-19 NBA wars, Jokic earned his first All-Star berth (the first by a Nugget since Carmelo Anthony in 2011) and posted four-year career highs and team bests in scoring (20.1 ppg on .511 FG and .821 FT shooting clips), rebounds (10.8 rpg), assists (7.3 apg) and steals (1.4 spg) while starting in all 80 of his appearances. He ranked second in the league in triple-double games with a dozen, trailing only former Oklahoma City star and now Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook’s 34.

What’s impressive about Jokic is his ability to hit the three-point shot from as far as the parking lot in the mold of the now-retired Dirk Nowitzki, whose native Germany (9-3) also qualified for the China event as one of the 12 qualifiers from Europe. Note that the distance of the FIBA international three-point arc is shorter than that of the NBA’s.

In the last two NBA seasons, Jokic has totaled 194 triples (out of 550 attempts, .353) including 83 (of 270, .307) in 2018-19.

Jokic owns the most valuable NBA contract in the World Cup. On July 9, 2018, he inked a five-year maximum-salary contract extension worth $147 million, the largest contract in Nuggets history and easily dwarfing the four-year, $141 million deal Walker signed with the Celtics last July as a free agent.
The other players on the Serbia team with active NBA experience are Boban Marjanovic (31, 7-foot-3, Philadelphia 76ers), Nemanja Bjelica (31, 6-foot-10, Sacramento Kings) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (27, 6-foot-6, Sacramento Kings).

The team skipper, 7-foot, 31-year-old center Miroslav Raduljica, also saw action with the Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA from 2013-15. He has been with the Jiangsu Dragons in the Chinese Basketball Association in the past two seasons.

Serbia is a medal contender, having been a two-time gold medalist (1998/2002) and one-time silver medalist (2014) in the world competitions that debuted in 1950. The country also finished second in men’s basketball during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996 and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016, where it lost to the United States, 96-66, in the gold-medal contest.

The Serbians, though, did not fare quite well in the Europe WC qualifying competitions, winning just seven of their 12 assignments to finish tied for 11th and 12th with another former Yugoslav republic Montenegro.

The head coach of Serbia is 52-year-old Belgrade-born Aleksandar (Sasha) Djordjevic, who saw action with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1996.

Senegal, whom the Philippines will face last on September 4, is coached by an American Will Voigt. Although they do not have a single NBA player in their lineup, the Senegalese went 10-2 in the Africa WC qualifiers in a tie for first place with Tunisia and Nigeria. Angola (9-3) and Ivory Coast (7-5) also qualified for the China games.

The top two teams in each of the eight groups in the preliminary round will advance to the second round. The last two will be relegated to the classification round.

* * *
The 2019 FIBA World Cup brackets in the preliminary round are as follows:

Group A – People’s Republic of China, Ivory Coast, Poland and Venezuela
August 31 (Cadillac Arena, Beijing) – Poland vs. Venezuela and Ivory Coast vs. China. September 2 – Venezuela vs. Ivory Coast and China vs. Poland. September 4 – Ivory Coast and Poland and Venezuela vs. China.

Group B – Argentina, Nigeria, Russia and South Korea
August 31 (Wuhan Gymnasium, Wuhan) – Russia vs. Nigeria and Argentina vs. South Korea.
September 2 – Nigeria vs. Argentina and South Korea vs. Russia. September 4 – South Korea vs. Nigeria and Russia vs. Argentina.

Group C – Islamic Republic of Iran, Puerto Rico, Spain and Tunisia
August 31 (Guangzhou Gymnasium, Guangzhou) – Iran vs. Puerto Rico and Spain vs. Tunisia. September 2 – Tunisia vs. Iran and Puerto Rico vs. Spain. September 4 – Puerto Rico vs. Tunisia and Spain vs. Iran.

Group D – Angola, Italy, Philippines and Serbia
August 31 (Foshan International Sports and Cultural Center, Foshan) – Angola vs. Serbia and Philippines vs. Italy. September 2 – Italy vs. Angola and Serbia vs. Philippines. September 4 – Angola vs. Philippines and Italy vs. Serbia.

Group E – Czech Republic, Japan, Turkey and United States
September 1 (Shanghai Oriental Sports Center, Shanghai) – Turkey vs. Japan and Czech Republic vs. United States. September 3 – Japan vs. Czech Republic and United States vs. Turkey. September 5 – Turkey vs. Czech Republic and United States vs. Japan.

Group F – Brazil, Greece, Montenegro and New Zealand
September 1 (Nanjing Youth Olympic Sports Park Gymnasium, Nanjing) – New Zealand vs. Brazil and Greece vs. Montenegro. September 3 – Montenegro vs. New Zealand and Brazil vs. Greece. September 5 – Brazil vs. Montenegro and Greece vs. New Zealand.

Group G – Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Jordan
September 1 (Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre, Shenzhen) – Dominican Republic vs. Jordan and France vs. Germany. September 3 – Germany vs. Dominican Republic and Jordan vs. France. September 5 – Germany vs. Jordan and Dominican Republic vs. France.

Group H – Australia, Canada, Lithuania and Senegal
September 1 (Dongfeng Nissan Cultural and Sports Centre, Dongguan) – Canada vs. Australia and Senegal vs. Lithuania. September 3 – Australia vs. Senegal and Lithuania vs. Canada. September 5 – Canada vs. Senegal and Lithuania vs. Australia.

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