Mission possible in Latvia?

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

Gilas’ mission is to book a ticket to the Paris Olympics through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Riga, Latvia, on July 2-7 but coach Tim Cone’s squad faces almost insurmountable odds in making it happen. Six teams are vying for the lone pass in Latvia. The Philippines is bracketed with Georgia and the host country in Group A while Brazil, Cameroon and Montenegro are in Group B. After a single round robin, the top two placers of each group advance to the semifinals with the winners battling for the Olympic slot in the final.

The Philippines was in a similar situation in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Tokyo in Belgrade, Serbia on June 29-July 4, 2021. Gilas was in Group A with the host country and the Dominican Republic. Gilas lost to Serbia, 83-76 and the Dominican Republic, 94-67. Kai Sotto and Carl Tamayo are the only Gilas holdovers with Cone’s team. Dwight Ramos was unavailable due to injury. Tab Baldwin coached in Belgrade and his other players were RJ Abarrientos, Isaac Go, Mike Nieto, Jordan Heading, William Navarro, SJ Belangel, Justine Baltazar, Ange Kouame and Geo Chiu.

It’s not certain when Cone will reassemble Gilas to start practice for Latvia. The PBA Philippine Cup will end either June 19 or 21 if the best-of-seven semifinal and final series go the distance. That will leave about 10 days of practice. The Japanese B-League will end its season and playoffs by late May so Sotto and Ramos are able to report early. Gilas will play Latvia on July 3 and Georgia the next day. The semifinals are scheduled on July 6 and the final, the next day. There will be no playoff for third.

Latvia finished fifth at the FIBA World Cup last year and would’ve likely made it to the semifinals if 7-2 Boston Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis played. At the FIBA EuroCup qualifiers last week, Latvia beat Slovakia, 64-52 and Spain, 79-75 without Porzingis and its other NBA player, 6-10 Davis Bertans of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Leading the charge for Latvia were 6-8 Andrejs Grazulis, 30, 6-4 Dairius Bertans, 34 and 6-3 Rihards Lomazs, 27. Grazulis averaged 15.5 points, shooting 75 percent from three, and 5.5 rebounds in the qualifiers while Lomazs normed 12.5 points, hitting 62.5 percent from beyond the arc, and 4.5 assists. Dairius averaged 14 points in two FIBA World Cup games last year then went down with an injury. Grazulis averaged 14.4 points in the World Cup. Davis and Porzingis are both in their eighth NBA seasons.

Like Latvia, Georgia made its FIBA World Cup debut last year. Georgia wound up No. 16 with a 2-3 record, defeating Cape Verde and Venezuela while losing to Slovenia, Germany and Australia. At the recent FIBA EuroCup qualifiers, Georgia lost to Denmark, 75-69 and Serbia, 76-63. Georgia’s key players are 6-9 NBA veteran Toko Shengelia, 32, 6-4 naturalized import Joe Thomasson, 30, of Wright State and 6-3 Giorgi Ochkhikidze, 19. There are two Georgians seeing action in the NBA this season and it’s probable they’ll join the national team in Riga. They’re 6-10 Goga Bitadze, 24, of the Orlando Magic and 6-9 Sandro Mamukelashvili, 24, of the San Antonio Spurs. Bitadze was Indiana’s first round pick in 2019 and is in his fifth NBA season. Mamukelashivili was the Pacers’ second round choice in 2021 and is in his third NBA season.

Thomasson received his Georgian passport only this year and saw action in the FIBA EuroCup qualifiers, averaging 14.5 points in two games. He has played as an import in Romania, Poland, Russia, Israel and Spain. Shengelia suited up for Brooklyn and Chicago in two NBA seasons, scoring 59 points in 45 contests. He was the Philadelphia 76ers second round pick in 2012 and has played in Spain for seven years, Belgium, Italy and Russia. Shengelia averaged 23 points and 6.5 rebounds in the recent FIBA EuroCup qualifiers.

Both Georgia and Latvia boast of bigs who shoot from the perimeter. The European style focuses on ball movement, setting multiple picks, deploying position-less players and hardly relying on post-ups. It’ll be a challenge for Gilas to survive the group stage particularly if Latvia and Georgia show up with their NBA players. But it won’t be just about winning or losing. It’ll be about getting better, stronger and tougher for the road ahead leading to the 2028 LA Olympics.

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