MAGNOLIA badly needed an answer.
Faced with the prospect of falling into a 0-3 hole that only one team in the history of professional basketball managed to overcome, the Hotshots had to dig deep and try something different — anything else, really — against a TNT team that methodically picked them apart in the first two games of the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup Finals.
That desperation yielded some unconventional solutions. On Sunday, Magnolia turned to junk defenses — a mix of zone and man-to-man concepts that are usually reserved for teams that have star players capable of shredding every other defensive coverage.
The ploy worked. Never mind that Mikey Williams was a walking flamethrower who scattered 39 points on 14-for-25 shooting and a new PBA Finals record of 10 threes; the Hotshots, now down just 2-1 in the best-of-seven title series, will take that any day of the week if his teammates cannot get anything going like in Game 3, where the rest of TNT shot 33.3 percent from the field and hit a poor 6-for-27 on 3s.
Magnolia's gambit, unfortunately, was buried in a spate of controversies from a rugged Game 3 that involved a phantom call, a flagrant foul that led to possible series-ending injuries to Troy Rosario, an alleged spitting incident, and a rare critique on officiating from the TNT team owner himself.
But as bad as some of the calls were, they weren't entirely the reason the Tropang Giga dropped their first game in the championship round. The free throw disparity was wider in the first two games, but the attempts were basically a wash in the third game, where Magnolia (27-of-29 foul shots) attempted just two more than TNT (18-fo-27).
Let's take a look at some of the things that truly went down in Game 3.
- These are all amateur observations. Feel free to message this writer for any corrections or to point out anything he might have missed; it would certainly be appreciated.
BOX-AND-ONES AND TRIANGLE-AND-TWOS
In the first two games, TNT's offense (44.4 percent from the field, 39.4 percent on 3s) made a living off of targeting Ian Sangalang and allowing the guards to exploit the gaps in Magnolia's aggressive coverages. To amend both those problems, the Hotshots decided to field the box-and-one and the triangle-and-two.
The box-and-one involves players zoning in the lane in a "box" formation while one guy (the "chaser") plays man on the designated star player. Triangle-and-two uses the same concept, except this time there are two chasers while the three others zone the lane in a "triangle" setup.
These defenses are basically a couple of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency options that are not commonly seen in pro leagues, though, as shown in both links above, Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors successfully utilized both schemes on their way to beating Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in six games back in the 2019 NBA Finals.
After Mikey (24.5 points on 51.4/66.7/75 shooting splits in the first two games) practically lit them up in TNT's 2-0 start, coach Chito Victolero and his staff decided to roll out both unorthodox schemes to throw off their counterparts right off the bat. (Magnolia sprinkled in a bit of other junk defenses there, but the box and the triangle zones were the most commonly deployed schemes.)
It wasn't initially foolproof. TNT got a pair of threes from Brian Heruela and Pogoy thanks to some Magnolia lapses, and the Tropang Giga found two more threes on the weakside later on when they managed to force Sangalang to defend the pick and roll in a couple of instances.
Magnolia, however, stayed the course and made some tweaks — like moving Sangalang closer to the basket during those schemes and fielding more mobile defenders in Reavis and Jackson Corpuz — to win the quarter 26-20 and hold TNT to just 7-of-21 shooting to open the game.
The Tropang Giga got going in the second quarter when Magnolia played less aggressively on the ball denials. Williams proceeded to score 10 of his points during that stretch to help TNT surge back and tie it at 37 after a 17-11 start to the period.
In order to prevent losing control of the pace of the game, Magnolia went back to deploying both junk defenses. Mikey still saw some good looks, but the Hotshots were able to reduce the time that he had the ball in his hands and prevent him from getting a lot of rhythm through dribbles by denying him more aggressively. (Exhibit A, B, C).
Magnolia built a 13-point lead to start the second half but allowed TNT to storm back when they went away from denying Williams. It kind of felt like the Hotshots were pretty reliant on these junk defenses, but it was necessary; you just can't give him a sliver of space because he will flat-out wreck you with a barrage of threes.
During that third quarter, Mikey scored 18 of the Tropang Giga's 31 points and buried six triples to keep TNT in the game (Exhibit A, B).
Of course, Magnolia did the sensible thing and went back to using the junk defenses that stalled TNT's offense. This time, though, they pinned Reavis on Mikey — an interesting wrinkle, though one that actually kind of worked in their favor.
Reavis on Williams is not the mismatch that many may think it is. At 44, he still rates out as one of the league's best defenders; according to 'Stats by Ryan' on DribbleMedia.com, Reavis entered the finals ranked eighth among all players in terms of defensive box-plus minus, or a box score-based metric that attempts to measure a player’s contribution on defense while on the floor.
The 6-foot-8 Reavis is more mobile on the perimeter than Sangalang and Corpuz, and he's taller and longer than Abueva; combine that with his IQ and experience, and you have a great foil for the red-hot guard. Whether it's a sustainable plan remains to be seen, but it was actually a pretty savvy move on the part of Victolero and the Hotshots, as Mikey scored "only" eight points and hit one triple in the fourth (Exhibit A, B).
The final numbers are telling. Magnolia got their offense going thanks to their defense, as they shot 50.7 percent from the field, got 23 points off of turnovers, and scored 48 points on 54.6 percent shooting inside the paint. TNT, meanwhile, managed just 40.5 percent from the field — a mark that would have been much worse without Williams to anchor it.
Expect TNT to push out plays that will free Williams from the oppressive Hotshots defense. Sets like these — a nice after-timeout screen-the-screener action on a baseline inbounds — could get Mikey a bunch of quality looks when the Tropang Giga gun for a 3-1 lead on Wednesday (Nice STS ATO set for Mikey).
FINDING OFFENSE ELSEWHERE IS KEY
Another thing that worked in Magnolia's favor was that the team got a lot of scoring across the board. Unlike in Game 2, where the offense primarily devolved into a lot of inefficient Sangalang post-ups, there felt like a more concerted effort on the part of the Hotshots to get other players involved — and they stepped up accordingly.
After scoring just 12 points on 33.3 percent shooting in the first two games, Lee broke out of his slump and tallied 21 points on 7-for-14 shots, with most of his baskets coming from getting downhill, curling off of screens or in sets he was involved as a screener (Exhibit A, B).
Sangalang pitched in 20, albeit on 7-for-20 shooting, while Calvin Abueva put up 14 in just 19 minutes. Jio Jalalon also scored seven of the Hotshots' first nine points and wound up with 11.
Mark Barroca deserves a lot of credit. Nine of his 16 points came in a solid fourth quarter finishing kick that saw the Hotshots pull away and hang on late; the wily 35-year-old veteran scored seven straight to hike the lead to 18, 95-77, then hit a tough floater with 52 seconds left gave the Hotshots a five-point cushion, 100-95, that practically served as the dagger.
All four combined to score 82 of Magnolia's 106 points. Not too shabby.
TNT, meanwhile, will have to hope that Jayson Castro (8.7 points on 38.9/22.2/76.9 shooting splits) and Roger Pogoy (10 points on 33.3/28.6/80 splits) finally chip in something worthwhile soon. The other Tropang Giga, in general, just have to start making the shots that Mikey opens up for them, like in some of the clips below.