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NBA stars turn back Smart Gilas

Photo by Sid Ventura

If yesterday's game was strictly for entertainment purposes, this one was taken a little more seriously.

Less than 24 hours after plastering the country's best professional players by 26 points, the Smart All-Stars found themselves challenged a little bit by a game Smart Gilas five, but still won comfortably, 98-89, at the conclusion of their historic two-game basketball series at the Araneta Coliseum.

Unlike their PBA counterparts, who were awestruck and were just happy to be on the same court as their NBA idols, the Nationals stuck to their promise of treating this as more than just an exhibition game, running their plays, challenging shots, and getting physical on defense to the delight of another capacity crowd that included boxing champs Brian Viloria and Manny Pacquiao.

Although the NBA stars obviously coasted a bit, especially in the fourth period, allowing Gilas to cut a 21-point deficit to just seven, the crowd appreciated the efforts of their national team, taking sides for the first time in the game late in the fourth after Marcio Lassiter's two free throws cut the lead to only 10 by chanting "de-fense!" and urging Gilas to complete its comeback.

A Marcus Douthit alley-oop slam off a lob from Mac Baracael cut further into the NBA stars' lead and made it 90-82 with 3:36 left, but Chris Paul, Derek Fisher and JaVale McGee took turns keeping the Nationals at bay until the final buzzer.

Kobe Bryant led all scorers with 17 points, and McGee and Kevin Durant added 16 apiece for the NBA selection, which led 28-16 after the first period and 55-37 at the turn. The lead was 79-60 after three, prompting Bryant to pull out McGee and go with a smaller line-up.

The NBA stars were up 81-63 early in the fourth when Pacquiao arrived and caused a stir. During a timeout, Bryant walked over to where the pound-for-pound champion was seated and exchanged man-hugs with his fellow Nike endorser. Pacquiao then made his way to the NBA selections' bench to shake hands and chat with Bryant's teammates. Paul, who takes boxing lessons in his spare time, said he probably wouldn't last 15 seconds in the ring with the WBO welterweight champion.

Perhaps inspired by Pacquiao's presence, JV Casio went on a tear, scattering 13 of his team-high 16 points in the fourth to fuel that comeback. His last triple cut the lead to 96-89, but there simply wasn't enough time left. Derrick Williams put an exclamation point on the game and this whole basketball extravaganza with a tomahawk jam for the final score.

When it was over, the NBA stars gave away their jerseys and sneakers to some very lucky fans in the crowd, and also spent several minutes signing autographs. Dondon Hontiveros brought home perhaps the most coveted item: Bryant's playing jersey.

Bryant scored 17 points for the Smart All-Stars, and came away impressed by what he saw with Smart Gilas. "They have some very talented players," said the Black Mamba after the game. "They know how to play as a team."

Added Paul, when asked about the Gilas guards: "They're really good. They play defense. Just like international players, everyone here can shoot."

Douthit, who scored 14 points, said the game would help in their preparation for the FIBA-Asia Championships in Wuhan, China in September. "It felt good, kind of see how competitive they are, how strong they are. Kind of get a feel for what FIBA-Asia will be in September."

This was the first time the full line-up of Smart Gilas, including five PBA players, was able to play together in a full game, and Douthit liked what he saw. "I feel good. We didn't give up. That's the big thing. We didn't come out here and just play an exhibition game. We took the game more seriously than the PBA guys. At the end of the day, I'm glad we had the opportunity to come together. This is the first we got to play together."

Douthit also went home with a souvenir — Derek Fisher's shoes — but he wasn't as star-struck as the others since he was once drafted by Fisher's team. He was, though, excited to see Pacquiao in the flesh.

"I knew some of the players already. But it's the first time for me to see Pacquiao, so I was more excited to see [him]. It's cool."

MVP Sports Foundation executive director Chot Reyes, who spearheaded this ambitious project, still sounded amazed that they were able to pull it off. "A big sigh of relief. When you look back, parang ang bilis. It's not an impossible dream. Dreams really do come true. I'd like to thank the fans, the public for warmly accepting each player. Everyone said they wanted to come back.

Reyes said the planned trip to Boracay won't push through anymore since many of the players have to fly home right away. "They have to go back. They have other commitments."

Post-game notes:

-          After the game, it was the turn of a couple of NBA stars to become star-struck. Durant and Paul both approached Pacquiao and requested to have their picture taken with him.

-          Viloria was honored at halftime with a plaque of appreciation for winning the WBO flyweight championship last week. Telecommunications mogul Manny Pangilinan and TV5 president Ray Espinosa presented Viloria with the plaque.

-          Celebrities spotted in the crowd included Sen. Antonio Trillanes III, actor Aga Muhlach,  Ilocos Sur governor Chavit Singson, and Philippine Olympic Committee chairman Monico Puentevella.

-          Some amusing signs held up by fans: "Kobe Marry Me", "We Want Scalabrine", "Kobe Marry My Wife", and "MVP Fix the Lockout".

The scores:

Smart All-Stars (98) — Bryant 17, McGee 16, Durant 16, Harden 15, Evans 9, Williams 8, Rose 6, Paul 6, Fisher 3.

Smart Gilas (89) — Casio 16, Douthit 14, Lutz 12, Hontiveros 11, Lassiter 9, Tiu 8, Aguilar 6, Williams 4, Ababou 4, Alapag 3, Baracael 2, Barroca 0, Taulava 0, Ballesteros 0.

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