Philippines’ 1st round record: 4-2

Iran’s 1st round record: 5-1

Last meeting: 2015 FIBA Asia Championship second round, Philippines won 87-73

How does Iran play?

Photo Credit: FIBA

A few things immediately stand out when watching Iran’s offense: 1) they use a lot of ball screens and 2) they’re constantly on the move. They play the typical “Euro” style where there’s an emphasis on moving and swinging the ball around until they can find the best open shot.  They seem to run a lot of weave and hand-offs that almost always end up in either a pick and roll or post-up for Hamed Haddadi. They also have Nikkhah Bahrami as their primary pick and roll operator. From there, the other three just spread out and wait for the kick out or cut to the basket. The beauty there is that both of the aforementioned players excel at both scoring on their own or creating for others.

But just because they’re disciplined and efficient in their halfcourt game doesn’t mean they’re not as effective in transition. In fact, they are very willing and able to push the pace when possible, whether off opponents’ misses or turnovers.

Defensively, they’re very solid as well.  They seem to like switching almost every screen while letting Haddadi hang back in the paint. And as is the case for most Central Asian teams, they love to play physical and bully opposing players with their strength. Not only that, they’re also extremely quick to loose balls and adept at stripping players especially on drives. That helps fuel their transition attack. All in all, there’s a reason why they’ve been an Asian powerhouse for so long.

Key players to watch

Photo Credit: FIBA

Almost every player in Iran’s lineup is a threat but these three are definitely that ones to pay close attention to.

Hamed Haddadi (16.8 ppg, 12 rpg, 3 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.5 bpg)

Nikkhah Bahrami (12.8 ppg, 4 rpg, 6.8 apg)

Sajjad Mashayekhi (10.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.3 spg)

I believe most fans are already very familiar at what Haddadi and Bahrami can do and how dangerous they can be. They may be advanced in age but that doesn’t really deter what they can still do on the court. Haddadi remains their anchor in the paint and the guy they play off of. His combination of size, shooting, skill, and experience is pretty hard to contend with. Not only can he score inside but he can also easily pass over opponents with his height and vision. Then you have Bahrami who is pretty much their main playmaker and ball handler. He actually leads ALL players in the assists department despite being labeled a small forward. He’s still a threat from almost everywhere on the court, especially on penetration. Mashayekhi might not rack up the assists as a point guard but his role in making sure Iran runs like a well-oiled machine is just as important. He’s also cut from the same mold as Medhi Kamrani with his speed and peskiness on both ends. His propensity to force turnovers and push the ball in transition is something to watch out for.

How can Team Pilipinas counter?

Realistically, a lot of things have to go right for Team Pilipinas to get a victory, especially with the game being played in Iran. Luckily for them, some teams have already laid the blueprint on how to best defeat them. They only have to look to a few years ago when Gilas Pilipinas under then-coach Tab Baldwin took a shocking 87-73 in their last meeting in the second round of the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship. They can also take a look at how China beat them in the gold medal match of the recent Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games.

It was noticeable how China’s length and willingness to bang bodies and smother the Iranians played a big part in frustrating them. Team Pilipinas may not have the length or height of the Chinese, but they can definitely play physical and aggressive defense. They will have to find ways to disrupt Iran’s disciplined offense, maybe by jumping passing lanes and delaying their ball handlers in setting up plays. They certainly have the quickness for it.

How they defend Haddadi will also be key. Yes, it will be difficult to contain him. Yes, they can’t just focus solely on him while leaving everyone wide open. That’s why I think it’s important for them not to overreact to him. I’m not saying to leave the bigs on an island against him but they won’t always have to double him immediately. They can take a hint from China and only double or crowd him once he makes his move. Ideally, they force him to put his head down and try to go through multiple players instead of going over the top.

Speaking of Haddadi, the team can also try to take advantage of his reluctance to take more than one step outside the paint. I noticed how Iran seem a step slow sometimes guarding screens and have to make up for Haddadi’s always dropping down on pick and roll coverage. This can sometimes lead to their defense being off-balance. That’s why it will be important for Team Pilipinas to trust Yeng Guiao’s system and keep the ball moving. Keep running screens, keep swinging the ball around, keep cutting. They can’t allow their offense to stagnate. In addition to that, the shooters will have to be on point, especially the bigs so they can draw Haddadi out of the paint. In that 2015 win, Andray Blatche was a key component with his shooting which the Philippines can replicate with multiple shooting bigs on the team.

Lastly, the element of surprise might be on the side of Yeng’s wards. With a new head coach, new system and practically half the team being first-timers or long-time returnees, it would definitely make scouting pretty hard. It worked for them three years ago with Iran having never faced Blatche before that game. It might work again here. It might be a small advantage, but every little bit counts.

Key players to watch

Photo Credit: FIBA

I think in general, the SMC boys will be the ones to watch out for. Not only because of their talent and what they can bring to the court, but also because most of them have been long-awaited additions to the national team.

Christian Standhardinger: It might be his first time playing in the qualifiers but he’s definitely no stranger to the international game. He may not have a consistent three-point stroke, but his unorthodox style of play more than makes up for it. Almost every opponent has struggled to match up with his combination of size, strength, and agility. Will it work on Iran’s more physical and experienced bigs? It remains to be seen. But seeing how he was able to “soften” up China’s Zhou Qi during their Asian Games match-up, I’ve no doubt he can do some damage here.

Alex Cabagnot and Paul Lee: These two will have to face the unenviable task of taking over primary facilitating from Stanley Pringle and Jordan Clarkson. What they lack in pure athleticism and explosiveness they can make up for with their mastery of the pick and roll. With both being a threat to pull-up, drive and pass, they’ll be relied upon to make sure the team doesn’t stagnate. Cabagnot’s national team debut will also be one to watch. The only downside is that they are not very good defenders so it will be interesting to see how Yeng Guiao will hide that.

Marcio Lassiter: His return to the national team has been a long-time coming ever since suiting up for the Gilas 1 iteration. His ability to shoot from practically anywhere on the court and from any position (off the catch, pulling up, in the pick and roll, heavily contested, etc.) will prove especially valuable. More than his shooting, look for him to be called upon to help guard the likes of Bahrami and Mashayekhi. His ballhandling ability is also an often underlooked part of his game. Expect him to carry facilitating in stretches as well.

Gabe Norwood and Scottie Thompson: These two will be expected to do the “little” things for the team. Norwood will likely be tasked with slowing down Bahrami while helping keep the offense organized. Hitting a few jumpers and maybe putting an Iranian in a poster would be a bonus. Thompson is another one of those players fans have been longing to see don the national team uniform. He will probably be expected to bring energy similar to Calvin Abueva’s role in previous iterations, albeit with less risk. It will be interesting to see if he can actually play point guard in spurts and bring the deadly shooting that doomed the San Miguel Beermen in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals. But his excellent rebounding, nose for the ball and ability to keep up with Iran’s pesky guards will definitely be there. Hopefully we witness him sky for a rebound against the 7-2 Haddadi.

Prediction

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Philippines will emerge victorious by around 5 points. They’ll do enough to stay within striking distance the whole game and steal it in the fourth quarter. After the heartbreaks most of the players suffered from China and South Korea in the Asian Games and with new blood looking to prove themselves, this might be their statement game. Again, with ball and player movement as a premium, the array of shooting bigs, the talent infusion and this being almost a completely new team might just be enough to get them through.

#LabanPilipinas