CHICAGO - With the league's No. 1 offense, and aided by the grit of its patented defense, the kind that restrains players like a pair of steel handcuffs, Magnolia was supposed to barge right through the Governor's Cup Finals.
But in a mildly surprising plot twist, the Hotshots lost Games 2 and 3 after taking Game 1 and their best-of-5 semis series against Meralco is now reduced into a twice-to-beat advantage in favor of the Bolts.
What the hell just happened?
Well, the Bolts are doing what Will Smith did to Chris Rock at the Oscars stage earlier today : They're smacking the hell out of Magnolia.
In the parlance of the poultry business, this is what's referred to as dressing a chicken.
And so the award for performance in a lead coaching role goes to Norman Black, who is making Magnolia's vaunted attack disappear in front of so many disbelieving eyes.
Magnolia sits atop the PBA in offense, churning 103.5 points per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 34 percent from 3, per the official league website.
Through three games thus far, they've managed just 264 points against the Bolts, a scaled down 88 per while their shooting has dropped to an alarming 21.9 percent from long distance (18 of 82) and 40.8 percent overall (101 of 247).
Coach Black, an 11-time champion with grand slam pedigree, provided me some clarity on the Bolt's magic trick on defense.
"We are similar to them in that we really try to focus on their best offense players and try to individually find ways to slow them down based on the offense they are running," he said.
THIS EXPLAINS WHY PAUL LEE HAS BEEN LIMITED TO 28 POINTS IN 3 GAMES, MAKING JUST 4-of-22 from 3 WHILE MISSING 27 of 37 FIELD GOAL ATTEMPTS.
I know he is dealing with a gimpy ankle but he is in uniform and still has a pair of hands. Hurt or not, Lee is always a threat when he is on the floor.
"We play more of a contain type defense and we rely more on help and rotation and we just try to limit them to one attempt," added Black, whose team is controlling the boards, 145-140, a big key in preventing Magnolia from getting second chance opportunities.
Magnolia's defense is showing a lot of bite and it's making Meralco labor through its 262 points in three games.
But import Tony Bishop had somehow risen through it with a total effort of 59 points, 36 rebounds and five assists.
"I still got to do better," he told me over the phone last Sunday where he celebrated Game 3's victory with a dinner of fried egg bacon burger with fries at TGIF in Pasig.
Having just immersed himself in the Meralco system, Chris Banchero is still finding his way. And the struggles showed with a combined output of just 26 points and 4 assists in Games 1 and 2.
But he is slowly finding his rhythm alongside new teammates and that was illustrated through a solid 23 points and 5 dimes in Game 3, a thrilling 101-95 triumph that pushed Meralco 48 minutes closer to the title round.
The Hotshots were on the brink of a fairy tale run to the championship until Black and his Bolts showed up in a hellish, nightmarish Games 2 and 3.
BUT THIS SERIES IS FAR FROM OVER.
Magnolia head coach, Chito Victolero, whom I couldn't reach for comment while penning this piece, is in the lab right now looking for solutions.
There's plenty of things to be fixed.
Lee has to be on fire.
Import Mike Harris, a beast with 50 boards, must up his scoring, which is at 25 points per in this series.
And Calvin Abueva, the beast, needs to be unleashed. He has been docile so far with only 29 points. And he has more fouls (15) than rebounds (11).
Game 4 figures to be another cliffhanger.
Who you got?
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