Croatia and the Smart Gilas (Philippines) will kick off their respective paths at the 2014 FIBA World Cup with a showdown against each other.
Both squads are in Group B and will have to deal with Argentina moving forward, so picking up an early victory in the initial game would be critical. The top four teams in each group advance to the round of 16.
The contest between Croatia and the Philippines takes place on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 12:30 GMT. It will be broadcast on ESPN3 and available for live stream on the WatchESPN app, per ESPN MediaZone’s FIBA World Cup press release.
Croatia’s strength comes in the form of three stretch forwards who will run the Philippines up and down the court throughout the contest. Dario Saric, Mario Hezonja and Bojan Bogdanovic have been on the radars of NBA scouts for years, and they will have the opportunity to show basketball fans throughout the world how talented they are in this game.
Saric checks in at a versatile and athletic 6’10” and can play either small or power forward. There is a reason the Philadelphia 76ers acquired his rights on draft day.
He can handle the ball in transition or post up smaller defenders, has excellent court vision that allows him to find teammates with crisp passes, and he can drill shots from behind the three-point line. He was named the MVP of the Adriatic League last season behind 16.7 points a night with Cibona Zagreb.
Dan Roche of CSNPhilly.com pointed out that Saric was impressive in the exhibition stages leading up to the World Cup:
As for Bogdanovic, he is also quite versatile at 6’7” and can play either forward spot. Like Saric, he is comfortable getting out in transition, is a solid ball-handler and can shoot from the outside. He isn’t the best defender, but he has gradually improved in that department over the past couple of years.
Hezonja is also athletic enough to blow past defenders with a quick first step or get out in transition. Croatia will likely use him in a number of pick-and-roll sets because he can shoot from the outside if the defender slips the screen, attack the rim if the pick creates enough space or fire an effective pass if the defense doesn’t see the roller.
This is a three-headed monster here for Croatia and a perfect representation of basketball’s shift toward stretch forwards.
Throw in the 7’1” Ante Tomic down low, and Croatia has a dangerous team.
Philippines will counter Tomic’s size and rebounding prowess with Andray Blatche, who averaged 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds a night last season for the Brooklyn Nets. He will be critical in this game against Tomic because Philippines can’t allow the Croatia big man to score on top of what the stretch forwards will likely provide.
Blatche’s NBA experience should prove critical in this matchup. Nothing against Tomic, but Blatche faces the best big men in the world on a nightly basis.
Tomic is talented, but he is no Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins or Marc Gasol. Blatche should be able to contain Tomic and score enough points of his own to keep the game close.
Blatche commented on the opportunity to play in this event when he was granted Filipino citizenship, via ESPN.com: "The sport of basketball is huge here. It's in the heart of every Filipino and I love basketball, and so it's like we have that similarity."
Who will win?
Blatche will certainly make a mark seeing that he is still a free agent and likely recognizes an opportunity to impress front offices before the season begins.
Still, even if Blatche wins the matchup down low, there is simply too much talent across the board for Croatia in this one. The three-pointers will be flying, and Saric, Bogdanovic and Hezonja will get out in transition whenever there is an opportunity.
Croatia will start off the World Cup with a victory.
Prediction: Croatia 91, Philippines 84
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