THE opening game of what was expected to be a tight 2021 PBA Philippine Cup Finals matchup between TNT and Magnolia did not exactly live up to the billing, to say the least.
After a series where the Tropang Giga exchanged blowout wins and losses against San Miguel in the semifinals, the flagship squad of the MVP group continued the trend in Game 1 on Wednesday, when a fiery first quarter set the tone for an 88-70 drubbing of the Hotshots that actually was worse than the score suggests.
It's a dream start for TNT, which moved three wins away from its first title since the 2014-15 Commissioner's Cup, and a pretty discouraging opener for Magnolia, which now finds itself on the backfoot despite being rewarded with two extra days of rest for finishing its semis series against Meralco in six games last week.
But both sides obviously understand that wins in Game 1 are hardly an indication of things to come. It just so happened that the Tropang Giga attacked certain weaknesses early on and their counterparts failed to adjust. (Not that there was an urgent need for the Hotshots to reveal any tide-turning counters at this stage in the title round, either; it's a marathon, not a sprint.)
Blowout games aren't entirely bad. That's just as true as the inverse — close games where both teams combine to shoot for 30-percent from the field aren't good hoops. To insinuate that it's unwatchable basketball disrespects discerning fans and observers, and the players and coaches who are simply thrilled to be part of a long, drawn-out chess match, regardless of the result.
Still, it's good to gain an understanding of what happened — how TNT ended up leading by as many as 32 against a Magnolia team that statistically rates as the second-best team this conference, and how the Hotshots can address certain areas.
Let's take a look.
- All advanced figures mentioned in this piece are from 'Stats by Ryan' on DribbleMedia.com — a collection of advanced stats for the PBA that uses up-to-date totals and formulas from both NBA.com/Stats and Basketball Reference, as well as other independent hoops websites.
- SPIN does not own rights to the videos. All clips courtesy of Kapatid International.
TNT ON OFFENSE
In the latter stages of the TNT-San Miguel series, the Tropang Giga often attacked the Beermen bigs to get things going on offense. June Mar Fajardo, in his first conference back after suffering a tibia fracture a year ago, predictably struggled to defend the pick and roll; Arwind Santos, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, is a tremendous weak side defender, but the Tropang GIga often took him out of the equation by forcing him to defend the point of attack.
The Tropang Giga carried that same philosophy against Magnolia early on. In our finals preview piece for TNT, we wrote that the Tropang Giga might have fewer weaknesses to exploit. Apparently, one hole was more than enough.
TNT attacked Ian Sangalang in the pick and roll and forced him to move his feet on defense — something which he doesn't always do well. In the first two possessions, the Tropang Giga probed the Hotshots big man's activity to see how he fared on that end.
Once TNT determined Sangalang was an apt target, the team proceeded to punish him. Here, Kelly Williams decided to get out of the way and clear out for Kib Montalbo, who then drew a foul on Sangalang:
Magnolia was forced to a timeout just 30 seconds later, when an empty corner screen and roll action between Kelly and Mikey Williams resulted in the former leaving Sangalang in the dust:
The carnage continued in the second quarter, where Mikey Williams caught fire and scored all 14 of his points to pace the TNT offense. The fourth overall pick of the recent draft really got a groove going when he began the second by attacking Sangalang as the main ball-handler.
The third clip below is telling. Kelly went at Sangalang, so Loren Brill had to pull in to help contain the drive. Kelly recognized the help, so he kicked it out to Mikey for the open wing triple.
Sangalang, who the team said was dealing with back spasms, was not the only problem, though it didn't help Magnolia's cause that TNT kept attacking him. Plus/minus box score ratings don't exactly tell the whole story, but Sangalang was a -19 and logged just five points and one rebound in 10 minutes. (A reminder to never always trust plus/minus ratings: Rafi Reavis was a -23 and Mark Barroca was a game-worst -27, but both men held their ground on defense and just happened to be on the floor during the Hotshots' worst defensive stretches.)
If the Tropang Giga weren't attacking Sangalang, they were often killing Magnolia using three-point shots generated off the pick and roll. TNT got a bunch of threes as a result of the Hotshots big men pulling in to help contain the roller. (Jayson Castro had a pair of really nice skip passes to the corner in this simple action.) TNT sometimes took Abueva, a great help defender, out of the equation by involving him in the pick and roll and forcing the other Magnolia bigs to close out on shooters.
Of course, it helps that Mikey had a rhythm going. Once he got warmed up after attacking Sangalang earlier in the quarter, Williams (21 points on 8-for-15 shooting, five triples, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals) made Magnolia pay for not playing tighter on him and simply obliterated isolations and switches.
TNT ON DEFENSE
The game plan here was simple: lock and trail the guards, don't give them an ounce of daylight, and use length to bother them.
TNT blitzed (sent two defenders to the ball) the ball handlers early on but reverted to playing drop coverage (where the man defending the screen drops below the level of the screen, closer to the basket) later on because the Tropang Giga guards did a tremendous job staying attached to the guards and fighting over screens; if the guards could not fight over screens in time — which was a rare occurrence; Brian Heruela and Roger Pogoy get a ton of credit here for using their physical attributes to bother the Magnolia backcourt — the TNT bigs stunted (meaning they lunged quickly at the ball handler before going back to their man) and recovered back once the guards were able to close the gap again.
In our Magnolia preview, we designated Lee as a wildcard simply because he is due for a big series after shooting poorly all conference long. TNT appears to have made note and just hounded the 32-year-old guard all night. Lee, who was reportedly dealing with a shoulder issue, finished with 12 points on 3-for-12 shooting, hit only one of his five threes, and had three turnovers.
Forget post-ups against TNT's big men. Kelly entered the series ranking third among all qualified players in Dribble Media's defensive box-plus minus, or a box score-based metric that attempts to measure a player’s contribution on defense while on the floor, while Erram is in the Top 30. Dave Marcelo rates well in that metric as well and works in a pinch. Magnolia abandoned that plan of attack after its bigs failed to get anything going against Williams and Erram.
Magnolia had a lot of turnovers — credit to TNT, a team that, as mentioned in our preview piece on them, forces the most errors in the league. Per PBA statistician Fidel Mangonon III, the team's 28 turnovers was a conference-high figure. That compounded their shooting woes; Magnolia shot a poor 27.4 percent from the field, which is an all-time finals record for the lowest field goal percentage by any team.
BRIGHT SPOTS FOR MAGNOLIA
It wasn't all bad for Magnolia. Coach Chito Victolero might possibly employ more aggressive/blitzing trapping schemes in order to take the ball out of TNT's hands faster or in order to force the Tropang Giga bigs to create offense on the short roll. That worked a bit in certain stretches in the first half, where they forced some careless turnovers. Castro might hold his own well there, but the Hotshots could possibly rattle Pogoy or Williams; Mikey is a great guard, but he's still not a high-level floor general that Castro is and committed four turnovers in Game 1.
The TNT bigs might end up being some sort of a release valve and can make Magnolia regret the decision to blitz the guards by hitting jumpers, converting on drives or finding the open guys in the wing, in the corners, or even in the dunker spot. The best bet is to force them to pass out. Erram missed a couple of open shooters in the short roll; Kelly and Rosario are more adept at locating teammates stationed beyond the arc, but them having to create for others is a better option than letting Castro or Mikey orchestrate the offense. It also goes without saying that the TNT shooters have to keep making their shots to blow up this gambit.
Throwing a zone defense is always an option, though it's not an ideal option for an extended amount of time. TNT diced San Miguel's zone in the first three games of the series, too, so Magnolia might not be inclined to go in that direction.
Magnolia's offense will be better, for sure. Victolero is cerebral, has a deep playbook, and is very creative at designing sets when the Hotshots need a quick bucket.
Below, Sangalang set an off-ball screen then ended up being the recipient of cross screens in an action that forced a mismatch and sent him to the line.
Magnolia once went for the "blind pig", or a three-person action "where the ballhandler passes to a big, who passes to a guard running by him toward the hoop."
This one's pretty standard, but the Hotshots could use more of these misdirection plays utilizing the gravity of the shooter just to get open looks underneath.
THE CALVIN ABUEVA FACTOR
Abueva was still a bundle of energy for Magnolia, posting 11 points (3-for-11 shooting), 11 rebounds, and one block in just 22 minutes off the bench. All of his rebounds came in the first two quarters, and 'The Beast' only played six minutes in the second half, where the game was firmly out of reach.
The Hotshots trailed by 32 in the third quarter, but they might have found themselves staring at that hole as early as the first quarter if not for Abueva's hustle. He just gets you a ton of extra possessions with his energy and defense.
He will certainly need to play more, but fouls are an issue. Entering the series, Abueva led the league in fouls with 4.1 a game. He will have to keep that in check.
The Hotshots will be better as the series goes along. They will push back. They are more than just a feel-good story; this team trailed only TNT in terms of net rating, per Dribble Media, which means they are a bonafide top-two squad, a team that bested the likes of sister teams San Miguel and Barangay Ginebra despite being somewhat inferior in terms of top-tier talent.
Magnolia belongs in these finals. But the onus is on the Hotshots to prove that they can keep up with a TNT team that has left them with resounding questions to answer.
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