MANILA, Philippines—The men's basketball competition of the 30th Southeast Asian Games offered little surprise, as the Philippines cruised to the gold medal.
Gilas Pilipinas won its games by an average margin of 44.6 points, capped by a 115-81 rout of Thailand in the gold medal game. The all-pro side coached by Tim Cone would often turn on the jets in the second half to pull away from their opponents.
Against Thailand, for instance, the Filipinos dropped 40 points in the third quarter to turn what had been a nine-point game at the half into another blowout.
"We really appreciate our dominance here in Southeast Asia," said Cone. "I think that's one of the things we wanted to show with this professional team, that we want to still dominate in this region."
The Philippines has indeed been the dominant basketball force in Southeast Asia for a long time, winning the basketball competitions in the SEA Games 18 out of 20 times. The last time the Filipinos failed to win the gold was back in 1989 in Kuala Lumpur, when Malaysia won at home.
Since then, the Philippines have dominated the competition, regardless of the team the country sends to the SEA Games. Even when the Philippines sent a "cadet" squad, composed of collegiate players, they still triumphed against the professional players of other countries.
Yet Cone said he believes that the time when the Philippines can send an amateur team and expect to win comfortably at the SEA Games has passed.
"Back 20 years ago when I coached the Centennial Team at '98 Bangkok, we totally dismissed the Middle Eastern teams," said Cone, referring to squads from Iran, Lebanon, and Jordan. "We just went out there and crushed them, we didn't even prepare for them."
"Twenty years later, I mean, look how much the Middle Eastern teams have risen. Iran is the Asian champion," he pointed out.
This is proof, said Cone, that every team can improve, and he is seeing that right now with the other Southeast Asian teams.
Vietnam was perhaps the most surprising squad in the SEA Games, as it made the podium for the first time by beating Indonesia in the bronze medal game. That squad was powered by Vietnamese-American players, and their players gained plenty of experience from competing in their own local league.
"Then you have the Asian league (ASEAN Basketball League), where the Thais are playing, Singapore is in there, Indonesia, they didn't have a team this year but they had a team in the past. So, they're growing," said Cone.
Having seen first-hand how tough the other teams in the region are, Cone said the Philippines can no longer afford to send amateur teams to the SEA Games and expect to dominate, the way that they did in previous years.
"Everybody makes a comment that anybody can beat these teams, from here, from the Philippines," said Cone. "And we turned around and looked at each other from a coaching standpoint, and said, 'So what, you think an amateur team could've beat that team?'"
"And everyone said, 'No.' No, we can't bring amateurs anymore to the Southeast Asian Games. They have gotten too good. We gotta bring our best players," he stressed.
The PBA players, said Cone, remain a cut above the rest in Southeast Asia and so they will predictably clobber their opponents.
"(But) if you bring an amateur team, we were talking about it, who would play the center position for us, if we brought amateurs at this point. We'd be good with Kobe Paras and Thirdy Ravena, but who would play the centers?" he pointed out.
"Who would be the 6-9, 6-10, 6-11 guys that could compete with Thailand and Vietnam and the other guys, like June Mar and those guys can. They don't."
The men's team was very nearly knocked off by Thailand in the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore. The team bannered by Kiefer Ravena and Baser Amer trailed by 11 at the half before rallying to an 80-75 win, with Ravena hitting the dagger triple with just 16 seconds left.
In the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, the Filipinos also struggled to get past Thailand again, settling for an 81-74 victory in the group round.
That an all-pro Philippine side won all the games comfortably this year cannot mask the reality that "Southeast Asia is catching up," said Cone.
"And that's a good thing," he stressed. "That's a good thing for basketball around the world. It's a good thing for us, and it's a good thing for them."
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