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(Mall of Asia Arena)
6:30 p.m. – Turkeyvs Canada
9 p.m. – France vs Philippines
Batum signs $120M with Hornets; to join French team in OQT.
Gilas Pilipinas starts its quest for an Olympic spot against France, an opponent that national team head coach Tab Baldwin calls “favorites” in the Manila leg of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
Baldwin, as well as basketball pundits, has every reason to give France the favorite tag since the squad known by its moniker “Les Bleus” is the highest ranked team, at No. 5 according to FIBA, that will play here.
“It’s tough. It’s really a tough game,” said Baldwin. “I think we’re playing one of the class teams in the tournament, maybe the class team, probably the favorites. Going in we have to play some of our best basketball for an extended period of time.”
The game is scheduled at 9 p.m. after Canada meets Turkey at 6:30 p.m. Tickets were already sold-out for the match up between the Filipinos and their French counterparts.
Aside from its FIBA ranking, France’s squad also boasts off NBA veterans in ace playmaker Tony Parker, a four-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs, and Boris Diaw – also of the Spurs.
French veteran wingman Nicolas Batum has opted to join the national team as it shoots for a spot in the Rio Games.
France coach Vincent Collet confirmed this yesterday during a press briefing, saying Batum is scheduled to arrive Monday evening.
“Nicolas Batum has been a player of this team since seven years now,” said Collet during the briefing at the Hotel Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila. “The last four medals we’ve got, he’s one of our leaders. This team has many talents, but Nicolas for sure he’s one of the leaders.”
The national team of France arrived last Thursday, but the 6-foot-8 Batum, who plays for the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA, was not with the squad.
The decision to stay behind is because, at that time, Batum – a free agent – was in the middle of negotiations with the Hornets. A few days ago, Charlotte team owner Michael Jordan reportedly agreed to give Batum a five-year contract worth $120 million.
However, Collet said that Batum would not play against Gilas Pilipinas in today’s opening day of the OQT because free agent signees will only be allowed to play for their national teams on July 7.
“We’ll wait for that,” said Collet.
Nevertheless, the addition of Batum gives France another world-class caliber athlete, having played for Les Bleus that won a bronze medal in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain and a gold medal during the 2013 European Basketball Championship in Slovenia.
“He’s one of the leaders of the team,” said Collet. “He gives us many things – athleticism, he can play without the ball very well, and he’s very important. That’s why he’s really something special for this team.”
As for the Gilas team, naturalized player Andray Blatche – a 6-foot-11 forward former NBA campaigner – will lead the campaign of Gilas. He is suiting up for Gilas for the third straight year since making his debut during the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Also in the Gilas squad are national team veterans like Jayson Castro, Jeff Chan, Ranidel de Ocampo, Gabe Norwood, Marc Pingris, Japeth Aguilar, Terrence Roemo and center June Mar Fajardo.
Joining them are Gilas rookies Ryan Reyes, Troy Rosario and Ray Parks Jr.
While it’s going to be tough beating France, Baldwin said there are still ways to upsetting the favorites, saying: “We’ve got to get a combination of forcing them not to play so well and hope they’ll have a little bit of an off day.”
“If all those planets align themselves, then we have a shot,” said Baldwin.
“They’re a team that has a very strong roster, have an unbelievable experience. They’ve been on a good run in international basketball the last five, eight years. We are an upstart (team),” he added.
“We have some homecourt advantage,” he said. “But not like their players aren’t used to playing in big settings, big stadiums, big environments, with big noise. So I don’t think there’s anything that would intimidate them.”
“But at the same time, they would be foolish not to respect any opponent and I’m sure that they do respect us. I don’t think players of their experience, stature would be too affected by the crowd. Hopefully they will but not expected and I’m not dependent on that,” added Baldwin.
The national team, which trained for nearly two months for the OQT, including a three-week stint in Europe, has a unit that is capable of shooting the lights out and attack the basket with Blatche.
More importantly for Baldwin, however, is the health of the players to start the tournament.
“We’re healthy, we don’t have any injury concerns,” he said. “Our preparation has been good, it’s been solid. I’d like it to be longer but this is a short calendar this year. It’s short for everybody but I think we’re one of those teams that will significantly benefit from extended preparations.”
“We have to be as ready as we can be. I feel that we have done a good job, and players have done an excellent job. We’re ready to go to battle,” added Baldwin, whose team will also face New Zealand in the preliminaries as part of Group B of the tournament.
France coach Vincent Collet shares the same sentiments about playing Gilas, especially in front of a boisterous crowd at the 23,000 capacity MOA Arena, the same venue when Gilas earned a spot – by placing second overall in the FIBA Asia Championship – in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
“Our expectation for this game, we know it’s the first game of the competition,” said Collet “We know expectations from the fans. What it means to play against France, we know the interest from Philippine fans for NBA as we have several NBA players on our roster.”
“This game is something special, it interests the competition for both teams and I think the atmosphere will be amazing and it’ll be one part of the game. Philippines has a good team, they have some good players.”
Collet already knows what to expect, having scouted the national team when it played Turkey in an exhibition match last Friday at the MOA Arena. Gilas lost the game, 84-76, but the crowd support, according to Collet, was unbelievable.
“You could see in the gym, I don’t know, 4,000 people, that would be 20,000 tomorrow probably. Soon as Philippine team plays better, crowd will become crazy, everything become crazy,” he said.
“We have to control that, we want to slow them down as soon as they got the momentum, and we will try to control the pace of the game as well. I think they will try very hard with much enthusiasm (crowd). They will try to elevate the tempo of game to deny us to play with our physical strength,” he added.