MANILA, Philippines – They’re not out of the tunnel just yet. But there is light in the distance.
Gilas Pilipinas is finally making significant strides forward as head coach Tab Baldwin notes the team more or less already has a grasp of its identity.
“I think one of the things that’s different is you might see guys that are a little bit more animated now because a lot of the unsureness around the team has started to disappear,” he said late Wednesday night, August 26 after team practice.
“We now know who we are for the most part. And that’s what these guys wanted.”
Gilas struggled to shake off the huge dark cloud hovering over them in the last 3 weeks amid line-up problems. The blows came in succession as players were either injured, suffering from over-fatigue or unavailable.
But on Wednesday night, two days since their return from a winless – albeit not fruitless – 4-nation pocket tournament from Estonia, the dark cloud seemingly dissipated significantly.
“It was tough on all of us back two weeks ago when we didn’t know who we’d be at the next practice,” admitted Baldwin, who emphasized growth and betterment, not wins, in the week-long Estonia trip. “Now we know who we are and that gives the guys a lot of confidence coming into practice, they can just work harder and make this team a better team.”
The positive energy was palpable during the two-hour practice – Gilas’ second for Wednesday after the morning session. Smiles and light-hearted comments no longer seemed forced or awkward. Jokes and laughter came easily.
Dondon Hontiveros let out a howl of a laugh as he and Terrence Romeo shared an inside joke; Andray Blatche, who is also visibly in better shape, had room for sarcasm and jest with Gabe Norwood after he contested a no foul call during the scrimmage.
Much of the tension has been lifted as well, as more relaxed and eager players executed drills with a lot less scrambling and more familiarity. Even the coaching staff looked more serious and preoccupied than when they started.
The Estonia trip clearly did Gilas good. But a few good things happening in a row aided the boost in morale, too.
Clarkson practices, Pingris returns
Luck favored Gilas in the previous couple of days as forwards Marc Pingris and Ranidel de Ocampo practiced for the first time on Wednesday.
Pingris returned after initially begging off to focus on his PBA team, while De Ocampo trained for the first time after nursing a hamstring injury for the last 3 weeks.
One other major reason for the upswing is the presence fo Fil-Am Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson at Wednesday night’s practice.
Baldwin himself admitted he was excited about the fact that Clarkson wanted to play for the Philippines and he made the effort to familiarize himself with what the national team is doing. Norwood and Jayson Castro were likewise on the same boat.
More work, more growth
The rise in the team’s confidence means there is more focus and drive to get things done.
Baldwin emphasized defense as a major problem for Gilas so far based on his assessment of their performance in Estonia, adding the offense will work itself out in time.
“Defense was the big issue. I think we were putting up 80 plus points a game and not very cohesive doing that so the offense is going to be okay, I believe,” Baldwin explained. “We don’t shoot the ball that great to be honest but we can construct shots pretty well. But right now we can’t stop anybody so we have a lot of work to do defensively.”
“Although the teams in Estonia were pretty good, when we start to come up against FIBA Asia top level teams, our defense better look nothing like what it looks like now. Better be a totally different look,” he added, as Gilas worked not only on offensive sets Wednesday but also on making defensive stops.
Gilas will have more chances to test itself and improve as they compete in the William Jones Cup starting this weekend until September 6. They will take on some of their potential FIBA Asia foes such as Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Iran.
Clarkson will be join the team in Taiwan but will not play.
“I don’t have expectations. I just want us to play well, I just want us to continue to grow as a team. And the only thing I’m concerned about is winning a gold medal in FIBA Asia,” said Baldwin, whose team last joined the Jones Cup in 2012 and went on to became champions.
“Everything that leads up to that is about getting better, not about trying to win a game, or get a result, or get a medal or anything like that. If it happens, obviously we’ll try to win every game that we play, it’s a bonus for us. But what we’ve got to do is become a team that can win FIBA Asia.”
The 2015 FIBA Asia Championship will take place in Changsha, Hunan, China from September 23 to October 3. – Rappler.com