THE battle lines are now drawn in the Fiba Asia Cup.
Three challenges, each one distinct from the other, stand between Gilas Pilipinas and the country's first Asian championship since a national team led by naturalized players Jeff Moore and Dennis Still and local stars Hector Calma, Allan Caidic, and Samboy Lim ruled the 1985 tournament in Kuala Lumpur.
A sweep of its group assignments, capped by a win over defending champion China, not only gave Gilas a bye straight into the quarterfinals but also an ideal draw that steered it clear of the heavyweights in the early rounds of the knockout rounds.
However, a daunting task still awaits the Philippines in the playoffs where it will meet nemesis South Korea in the Final Eight on Wednesday (11:30 p.m., Manila time) and, if it keeps winning and if the formcharts hold, Iran in the semifinals and Fiba Asia newcomer Australia in the final.
The three anticipated matches are as daunting as the teams are different: Korea is a disciplined team that banks on fluid execution and spot-on shooting, Iran still has the best big man of the tournament in Hamed Haddadi, while Australia is one of the world's best in the sport.
Different as they are, these three teams are bound to test every single aspect of Gilas' game:
* Gilas' gunners, primarily Jayson Castro, Terrence Romeo, and Matthew Wright, must be spot-on in the quarterfinals to break the Korean zone and open up the defense for the Filipinos' inside scorers. Just last month, Gilas shot 1-of-26 against the Korean zone and lost, 83-72, in the Jones Cup in Taipei. Wright, one of four holdovers from that Gilas team, went 0-of-7 in that game.
* Haddadi was a question mark in the weeks leading up to the tournament but now that he's in Beirut, he has left no question that he's still the best center in the continent, averaging 19.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and a tournament-best 8.7 assists through the group stage. It's therefore up to Christian Standhardinger and Raymond Almazan - and perhaps the fit-again June Mar Fajardo - to keep the 7-2 NBA veteran in check. Slow down Haddadi and Gilas will have half the job done against Iraq.
* Australia sent a team to Beirut without a single NBA player, but you can do that and still expect to win an Asian tournament if you're the No. 10 ranked basketball team in the world. To have a shot at beating the Boomers, Gilas' running game must be spot on to make the most of the only distinct advantage it has against the Aussies - its quickness.
This is not meant to scare you, but these three teams are playing some of the best basketball entering the knockout rounds.
Let us give you an idea of how good they've been playing:
* After an opening loss to host Lebanon, the Koreans have racked up three straight wins highlighted by a 76-75 upset of New Zealand. The Koreans are averaging 84.8 points - fifth best in the tournament - while making 36 percent of their shots (No. 3). More worryingly, the Koreans of legend Hur Jae have held the first four opponents they've faced to 67.5 points - a tribute to its dreaded zone.
* Iran has yet to be really tested in the tournament. The closest anyone came close to beating the 2015 champions was on Sunday when Jordan lost to the Iranians by 12, 71-83. The team has also shown that it is more than just Haddadi, making 25-of-27 three-point shots (No. 4 in the tournament) and averaging 90.3 points, second only to Australia in the league.
* The Boomers' team of NBL players has won its first three games by an average of 32.33 points and it hasn't even fielded its top player, David Andersen, yet. That tells you about the gap in talent between this team and the rest of Asia.
But this piece is not all about bad news. The good news is, Gilas has been playing as well as anyone in this 16-nation conclave, not bad for a team left without its top two big men (Andray Blatche and June Mar Fajardo).
Here's just a number of facts that can raise your confidence if you're a Gilas fan:
* The Philippines' offense is humming so far, hitting at an 86.7-point clip through three games that is third-best in the league just behind Australia and Iran.
* Gilas has made the most number of three-pointers in the tournament at 37 and its 42 percent shooting clip (37-of-88) is second only to Japan (43.2%). That is exactly the kind of shooting it needs to sustain if it hopes to break the Korean zone.
* Terrence Romeo is the team's No. scorer - and No. 7 in the entire tournament - with a 17.7-point average built around a 40-percent shooting average from three-point land. Not bad for a back-up guard.
* Gilas has been no slouch in the couch on defense, holding its first three opponents to a 76.33-point average.
* Lastly, this Gilas team has shown a lot of grit so far. The Filipinos held off a late China comeback, shook off a sluggish start against Iraq, then weathered a tough stand by Qatar. That's exactly the fighting qualities you need to win tournaments such as this one.
With that, let's hope for the best and wish our team the best of luck.