Gilas Pilipinas needed more than three full quarters to solve the riddle of Thailand and Tyler Lamb on Thursday, September 28, going without a clue before finding the answer in the last six minutes to win, 87-72, in the 2023 Asian Games at the Zhejiang University Zijingang Gymnasium.
Only after a 7-2 run late in the fourth, crammed in by a Justin Brownlee tip and a Japeth Aguilar putback, were the Nationals able to exhale and savor their hard-earned second win that put them on a direct collision with Jordan on Saturday, September 30, with an outright spot in the quarterfinals at stake.
A loss would have complicated matters for the Philippines with the path to the next round strewn with playoff roadblocks.
Jordan, powered by TNT Tropang Giga import Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, routed Bahrain, 84-60, and stayed unbeaten as well in the preliminaries, setting up an all-important clash with Gilas on Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center.
A 19-point late third quarter advantage for Gilas quickly evaporated in the heat of Thailand’s torrid shooting, and only the inside strength of its frontline saved the day for the cold-shooting Nationals.
Gilas head coach Tim Cone preferred to view the victory for its essence rather than its quality.
“We’re not here for pogi points,” said Cone. “We’re not here to try and win by 50 and impress everybody. No, we’re a team that came together quickly and our expectations are to win each game by one point. That’s it. If we win a game by one point, that’s all we care about.”
“And it felt like a one-point win today,” he added.
Brownlee, who has been playing hurt from a surgically-repaired foot that hasn’t fully healed, had 29 points but labored mightily the entire game to keep Gilas above water in the face of torrential three-point baskets from Thailand, specifically from Lamb and Frederick Lish, who poured 28 and 22 points respectively.
CJ Perez, a wrecking machine going to the heart of the defense, added 16 points for Gilas while June Mar Fajardo had 9, Calvin Oftana 8 and Scottie Thompson 7 points, including two free throws in the last 51.6 seconds that snuffed the life out of a last-ditch Thailand comeback 84-72.
Cone addressed Brownlee’s struggles.
“He was definitely hurting, his leg, his foot was bothering him. I’d say he was about 80 percent today, 85 percent at the most; there were times he was coming down the floor, he was limping,” said Cone.
“But he is such a trooper and he’s playing through it for only one reason: ‘cause he’s on the national team. If he’s not playing for the national team, he wouldn’t be playing. So give him credit.”
The Nationals spent the first half trying to unravel Thailand’s game. And they did somewhat, halfway in the third quarter. But just when it appeared they had it all figured out, the Thais sprang back to life with more lights-out shooting.
The frightening sequence must have kept the Gilas fans back home trembling and on the edge of their seats after the Thais razed a 66-47 deficit after three quarters, rallying within 68-63 in the final 6:24.
The 16-2 run, fueled by 3-point bombs launched by Lish and then Lamb, would be best remembered for the scene wherein Lamb had turned to mock the Philippine bench after burying his sixth triple.
Sadly for him, it was to be his last.
Lish kept the pressure on, though, knocking down his fourth 3-pointer to keep it a three-possession match, 75-68. But the Nationals pounded the offensive boards after each missed attempt and put together a 7-2 closing spurt that took the fight out the Philippines’ chief rival in the Southeast Asian Games.
“They came out with the idea they were gonna shoot a lot of threes, and Tyler Lamb got hot early,” Cone quipped. “I thought we had a good challenge on a lot of those threes but they still went in, so you gotta tip your cap. They shot the ball well today.”
And the Nationals didn’t (32 of 82), a fact Cone conceded.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well and that’s what made the game close. We had to battle, try to play inside, use our size, and they were out there trying to shoot threes. Bottom line is we won, and we’re not gonna question wins too many times.”
The two-time PBA Grand Slam champion coach paid tribute to Thailand’s Spanish coach, Eduard Torres Girbau.
“He came out and changed defenses on us, kinda confused us a bit,” said Cone. “We just have to rely on the skills of our players to make plays because we didn’t have much done in execution because we were so confused with the changing defenses.”
That Thailand was able to torch Gilas’ perimeter defense came as no surprise since the scouting report had forewarned the Nationals to look out for the Thai’s foreign-trained snipers.
What probably surprised them more was their inability to match Thailand’s firepower in the first half — from long distance or close range.
Gilas fell behind quickly 22-12 in the first quarter behind a 13-2 Thailand run anchored on Lamb’s three-point shooting, and only an 8-2 run to finish the quarter, highlighted by a Calvin Oftana triple — Gilas’ only trey — closed the gap 22-20.
The halftime was 41-35 for Gilas before it made any headway, assembling a run behind a tightened defense to forge ahead 64-47 on a Perez triple, setting up the riveting fourth quarter.