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LONG, HARD CLIMB — Baldwin: Gilas margin of error too small

GERMAN legend Dirk Nowitzki is part of the record-breaking crowd that witnessed the opening of the FIBA Basketball World Cup at the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan. | Photograph by Joey Sanchez Mendoza for the daily tribune @tribunephl_joey

BOCAUE, Bulacan — Tab Baldwin anticipates a dogfight for the Gilas Pilipinas squad that opened its FIBA Basketball World Cup campaign against the Dominican Republic on Friday at the Philippine Arena here.

Baldwin, the veteran international mentor who handled Gilas in the qualifying windows last year, said the level of competition is so high that the margin of error of the Filipinos is very small in this prestigious 32-nation tournament.

Gilas are playing the Dominicans at press time with three-time National Basketball Association All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns at the helm.

Then, they will battle Bruno Fernando of the Atlanta Hawks and the Angolans on Sunday before wrapping up their preliminary assignments on Monday against the Italians, who swept all of their seven friendly matches against quality teams before marching into the World Cup.

Although the battle will not be easy, Baldwin believes that Gilas will have a chance if they will deliver the game of their lives.

“It’s a tough pool. It’s a very tough pool,” Baldwin told Daily Tribune at the sidelines of the Gilas-Dominican Republic match.

“They have a chance. Angola is probably beatable. Dominican Republic and Italy, they’re gonna have to have bad performances and Gilas need to make no mistake. That’s just the way it is.”

The Kiwi-American mentor, who coached in countries like New Zealand, Jordan, Australia, Lebanon, Malaysia and the United States, said Gilas couldn’t afford to commit mistake against the best players in the world.

“The margin of error is very small. These are very, very high-class teams. But anything can happen in these games. You’ve just got to come out prepared,” said Baldwin, who coached Gilas from 2015 to 2016 and returned from 2020 to 2021 while serving as head coach of Ateneo de Manila University.

“You just have to come out with a mindset that if you do everything right, and take it possession by possession, they’re not gonna shut down Gilas, and Gilas is gonna get scored in every possession, so you just have to extend on those small successes and get them enough to win.”

Should Gilas pull off a pair of wins, they will gain a handsome shot at emerging as the best-performing Asian team that would be granted an automatic ticket in the Paris Olympics.

After all, China is also in a tough group with Serbia, Puerto Rico and South Sudan while Jordan is bracketed with powerhouse the United States, Greece and New Zealand, and Lebanon and Japan are in the companies of Canada, Latvia and France, and Germany, Finland and Australia, respectively.

Still, Baldwin believes that advancing to the Olympics would take more than luck.

“It’s against all odds. Nobody should be fooled by that,” said the mentor who nearly sent the Filipinos to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics if not for a disappointing loss to China in the 2015 FIBA Asia Men’s Championship.

“But you play the game to win the game. I’m sure the Gilas boys will come out and compete to the very best of their abilities.”

Baldwin added that it’s going to be interesting to see how his former player in 7-foot-3 Kai Sotto will perform with professional stars like Jordan Clarkson, June Mar Fajardo and Japeth Aguilar.

“I haven’t seen Gilas play as they’ve been held behind closed doors. I haven’t seen Kai,” Baldwin said.

“But I know he’s getting better all the time.”

“I know Kai has a great work ethic and he’s a very intelligent basketball player. He’s been under a lot of scrutiny and a lot of pressure. I’m not sure how well he has handled all of that, but I just wish him the best because he’s a great kid. He’s a great prospect and let’s hope he’ll get a great professional career wherever he lands.”

Baldwin stressed that the World Cup should never be the gauge to measure Sotto’s readiness to play in the National Basketball Association.

“Not at all,” Baldwin said.

“The World Cup is for national teams. It’s about players representing their countries and doing the best they can.”

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