What’s going on, everybody? It’s been some time since I’ve put some thoughts and memories down in virtual ink, so bear with me while I shake off the rust.
Over a decade of international basketball has allowed for some great battles against the world’s top countries and players. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my top five NBA matchups that I’ve had the headache of dealing with during my years with Gilas Pilipinas.
Just to make this list more focused, I decided to remove point guards like Tony Parker and JJ Barea, along with post players like Boris Diaw (arguably the smartest player I’ve ever played against) and my dear friend Luis Scola. Instead, this list only includes guys I was tasked to contain. So, in no particular order, here we go.
Francisco Garcia (Dominican Republic)
Being the huge college basketball fan that I am, defending Garcia was one of my first “wow” moments in preparation for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. In some provincial city in Spain, I found myself across from a 6’7” guard who I’d looked up to since his days at Louisville.
Garcia played with great composure no matter how much I tried to pressure him and was so precise in the timing of his attacks. For a good portion of the game I felt like I held my own, which could be to my credit or the fact that he might have been passing himself. I’d like to think it was more of the former, especially since it was one of my best offensive performances (which no one will see since it wasn’t televised) in a Gilas jersey.
Unfortunately, the game was marred with dirty plays, punches thrown, and some unpleasant words exchanged, which ended up being the biggest highlights of the game. It got a little out of hand in the end, but it would have been fun trying to step up to the challenge of defending Garcia during crunch time.
Nicolas Batum (France)
Speaking of crunch time, Batum showed me exactly what it was like to defend a go-to guy down the stretch.
It was our first game in a small pocket tournament near the south of France. I’m guessing the schedule was set in anticipation that the host country would walk over their guests from Southeast Asia. To the surprise of many, probably even us to an extent, we matched France punch for punch. For about three and a half quarters, I felt like I was getting the best of Batum and looking at the stat sheet, it might have been true. Chasing him off screens, pressuring his dribble, and contesting his every shot seemed to frustrate him. But little did I know, he was just waiting to ignite.
In the last five or six minutes, he had me worn out and he was moving at the same speed as when Japeth Aguilar and Rudy Gobert first went up for the jump ball. Batum scored, then scored again, and again. Jump shots, and-ones, lay-ups, you name it. I don’t know the French term for it, but he definitely got me with the Muhammad Ali “rope-a-dope” and helped France walk away with a close win.
Joe Ingles (Australia)
This one will be short, only because the game itself wasn’t very close. We played a few days after our loss to France, and the Aussies came out prepared and had no intentions of being caught off guard. Joe Ingles ranks high on my list of guys who just purely enjoys playing the game of basketball but could remain locked in and ultra competitive.
Though his minutes were limited against us because of the score, he played his role perfectly and his IQ stood out to me. Ingles seemed to always make the right play, all while flashing a childish smile, similar to the way PBA great Willie Miller approached the game.
Bojan Bogdanovic (Croatia)
Coincidentally, Garcia, Batum, and Ingles were all matchups in preparation for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain. Going into our matchup with Croatia equipped with some humbling lessons learned, I felt ready to go up against another NBA-caliber player in Bojan Bogdanovic.
But once again, it was clear that this matchup presented a new challenge. The lesson came early in the game when I realized how physically strong Bogdanovic was, which he used to his advantage. Much like Batum, he came off of a lot of screens which meant a lot of chasing and running into post players for me.
We had scouted their plays religiously in preparation for our first game on the world stage in 40 plus years, so a few possessions in, I knew they’d be going to their elite scorer soon. Sure enough, he had me under the basket, setting up a staggered screen to the wing. I knew it was coming and leaned my body on him to influence him to go the other direction. But here is where the strength was implemented.
Bojan shifted his weight to counter mine and got me completely off balance. That was all the space he needed as I found myself trailing him off the screen and by the time I jumped to contest his 3-point attempt, the ball was already out of his hand and nearing the basket. If the matchups with Garcia, Batum, and Ingles were games of mental toughness and timing, I knew right from there that going up against Bojan was going to be more physically taxing.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece)
Even though at the time he had just been drafted and didn’t play as much on a veteran-led Greek squad, Giannis still makes the list. More so off the obvious potential and the “thank you for not playing him more” thought that went through my head after the game.
The future MVP didn’t score a field goal in 14 minutes, but was disruptive on the defensive end with his ridiculous wing span, and his ability to aggressively run the floor made him a threat on every change of possession. All qualities that Milwaukee was so excited to acquire and why they had (what I believed to be) a Bucks representative around the clock at the hotel.
So there it is, my top five toughest NBA matchups on the international stage.
There are many others that came close (Cedi Osman of Turkey, Dante Exum of Australia, Andres Nocioni of Argentina, etc.) but these were the challenges that I really looked forward to. After the buzzer sounded, I was able to walk away not only with great stories, but great lessons on how to be the best defender possible.