Gilas Pilipinas lives and dies with Jordan Clarkson

Gilas Pilipinas lives and dies with Jordan Clarkson
Jordan Clarkson - FIBA PHOTO

A Gilas Pilipinas game plan that lives and dies with NBA star Jordan Clarkson ended in a heartbreak loss, 87-81, to the Dominican Republic in last night’s (Aug. 25) first FIBA Basketball World Cup group stage match.

The Philippines is, of course, still in contention, but it’s a tough road ahead as Clarkson and the rest of the team take on Angola tomorrow, Aug. 27, and then Italy on Aug. 29. Both matches will be held at Araneta Coliseum in Cubao, Quezon City, and only the top two teams in the group will advance to the next round.

Plan almost succeeded

Gilas Pilipinas’ game plan almost succeeded. The record-breaking crowd of 38,155 that filled the Philippine Arena in Bulacan roared with delight every time Clarkson played hero ball and ran one-on-one isolation plays—surely what they expected to see considering Filipinos’ devotion to the United States’ NBA as well as the Philippine Basketball Association.

Hero ball is giving the best player the green light to attack at the earliest opportunity. It’s not a bad plan and it made the likes of the NBA’s Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant household names.

Clarkson–the Utah Jazz shooting guard who committed to play as Gilas Pilipinas’ naturalized player–was a sight to behold as he blew past his defenders or found open teammates as the defense clamped on him. The former NBA Sixth Man of the Year was Gilas’ big shot maker who kept the Philippines poised down the stretch in a match that had15 lead changes and 19 ties.

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Bowed out

But when Clarkson bowed out after committing his fifth foul, with 3:32 minutes remaining in the game and Gilas 3 points behind, 79-76, it was downhill for the team from there. (In the NBA, a player is allowed 6 fouls before being booted out of the game; the FIBA permits only 5 fouls.)

Clarkson’s absence was deeply felt by Gilas. He was the team’s best player who had 28 points on 9-of-11 free throws, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists before fouling out. Without him, Gilas’ offense struggled. When the smoke cleared, despite their many missed shots and free throws late in the game, the Dominicans finished on top, 87-81.

Another NBA superstar, 7-foot center Karl Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, kept the Dominicans steady. The three-time NBA All-Star scored 4 straight points that gave his side an 81-76 lead before shots from Victor Liz and Lester Quiñones sealed the deal for the team also known as “Los Quisqueyanos.” Towns led his team with 26 points and 10 rebounds.

It’s easy to blame the basketball gods for letting Clarkson commit his last two fouls in quick succession. But any team whose game plan relies too much on its best player is using a recipe for failure. It’s an inefficient strategy.

Defense regularly collapsed

Take the case of Clarkson. His 28 buckets were made on 9-of-24 shooting (38%). He attempted 6 shots behind the arc but only one succeeded. Because the Dominicans knew who would always take the ball to the rim, defense regularly collapsed on Clarkson, who was forced to commit 8 of his team’s 19 turnovers. The Dominicans had only 12 turnovers.

To be sure, Clarkson had help. Veteran center June Mar Fajardo was stellar after putting up 16 points on 5-of-5 shooting (6-of-8 from the free throw line) while making 7 rebounds. Ariel John Edu had 7 points (2-of-3 behind the arc), 5 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. At 6’11” and 6’10” respectively, Fajardo and Edu kept Towns from completely taking over the game. Towns ended up committing 5 turnovers and 4 personal fouls. The other Gilas player to reach double figures was Dwight Ramos, with 13 points and 6 rebounds.

Offense could have survived

Gilas’ offense could have survived Clarkson’s absence had they passed the ball around more until they saw an opportunity to score a basket. Besides, Gilas still had Fajardo and Ramos and could have used the services of Kiefer Ravena and Rhenz Abando, who both could take over the scoring load. They were used sparingly and played only for 7:16 minutes and 3:17 minutes, respectively.

Despite the loss, Gilas coach Chot Reyes was pleased with his team’s effort. “I really loved the fight of our players,” he said in a postgame interview. “They competed hard. Jordan’s disqualification was unfortunate — really a big blow for us. But we can’t worry about that now. We have to focus on our next game. Quick turnaround for us, and we’ve got to get ready for Angola.”

The hope is that Clarkson is ready to ignore whatever stigma last night’s heartbreaking defeat caused him.

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