Dreams of a 2014 FIBA World Cup title may be nearly gone for Gilas Pilipinas (Philippines) and Puerto Rico, but national pride is an incredible motivator. Basketball fans will likely find that out Wednesday when the two sides square off.
Something has to give because both teams check in at 0-3 in Group B play. Only four of the six teams advance from each group, and these two squads are looking up from the bottom of the standings.
The contest takes place Wednesday, Sep. 3 at 7:30 a.m. ET. It will be broadcast on ESPN Deportes, per ESPN MediaZone’s FIBA World Cup press release.
Thus far, Philippines lost to Croatia 81-78 after falling behind 23-9 at the end of the first quarter, lost to Greece 82-70 and lost a heartbreaker to Argentina 85-81 after mounting a late comeback effort that fell just short.
As for Puerto Rico, it lost to Argentina 98-75, Senegal 82-75 and Greece 90-79.
It’s easy to look at the Argentina game in a vacuum and come away far more impressed with the Philippines than Puerto Rico, but that game between Philippines and Argentina featured a number of late three-pointers that closed the gap quickly.
Of particular interest for American basketball fans are the actual players to watch. Andray Blatche has controlled the middle for the Philippines and is averaging 21 points and 13.7 rebounds a night. He went off in the opener against Croatia with 28 points and 12 rebounds and set the tone for his World Cup down low.
You wouldn’t guess it based on his performances in Spain, but Blatche is still a free agent in NBA circles. That is likely serving as a motivating factor as he continues to put up double-double numbers against collective talent that may not cut it in the NBA.
Still, it’s not as if Blatche is playing pickup basketball against high schoolers in the summer. These are professional athletes representing their country, and Blatche is having his way down low. This could be a cause for concern for Puerto Rico.
Zach Harper of CBS Sports has certainly been impressed thus far:
I’m sorry. I should refer to him by his properly given name. 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP Andray Blatche— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) August 31, 2014
Blatche isn’t the only Philippines player to watch.
Point guard Jim Alapag is averaging 7.3 points and 3.7 rebounds a night in the World Cup, but the 5’10” point guard thrilled the fans and spectators with his clutch performance against Argentina. He hit five of six shots from downtown, including four in the final six minutes to make a game out of a contest that appeared over.
It was the type of comeback spearheaded by a short guard that causes commentators to use cliche phrases like “gritty” and “so much heart,” and it almost took down one of the world basketball powers.
Alapag may not be a household name in the States, but he is a former Philippine Basketball Association MVP, darts in and out of lanes with his quickness and can clearly drill it from three-point range. The one-two combination with Blatche is very difficult for anyone to stop.
What’s more, this is Alapag’s farewell tour with the team.
As for Puerto Rico, NBA fans will be quite familiar with J.J. Barea, who has led the way with 20 points and 4.3 assists a night for his squad. He commented on what it means to play for Puerto Rico, via Gonzalo Aguirregomezcorta of ESPNDeportes.com:
I've always done it since I was 16, representing Puerto Rico. I've always done it in the summer and I use it as a way to prepare myself to be in shape. That way when the NBA practices start, I don't [have] to do much and I'm in shape. I love defending that Puerto Rico jersey.
Barea isn’t the only Puerto Rico player with NBA experience.
Veteran Carlos Arroyo gives the team another guard who can handle the ball and shoot from the outside, and Renaldo Balkman has contributed with 18 points and 5.3 rebounds a game. Balkman is a 6’8” forward who can stretch the floor with a mid-range jumper or attack the rim off the bounce. He played six NBA seasons with the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks and gives Puerto Rico another dangerous option on the offensive end.
Still, the one-two punch for Philippines will prove to be too much Wednesday for Puerto Rico.
Blatche has been playing like a man looking for that next NBA contract, and Alapag has serious momentum and confidence on his side after the three-point barrage he unleashed against Argentina. He too should be plenty motivated because it is his last go around on the national team in a marquee event.
The matchup to watch will be Alapag against Barea, but Alapag will contribute as the emotional leader of the team and a lethal three-point shooter even if the individual nod goes to Barea.
Philippines has been keeping the individual matchups close and narrowly missing out on comeback victories against talented teams. Look for it to finally get over the hump Wednesday.
Prediction: Philippines 91, Puerto Rico 83
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