FOR about a quarter and a half in the latter stages of Game Two of the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup finals, a Magnolia squad that had undoubtedly been a top-two team for most of the conference looked like it could stand toe to toe with TNT and erase the memories of the previous six quarters where the Hotshots desperately grasped for a fix against their more in-rhythm counterparts.
Unfortunately, things eventually ended up being more of the same down the stretch. After two games, TNT and Magnolia now stand on opposite sides of the spectrum — one team halfway through their goal of ending a six-year title drought, the other deep in a 0-2 deficit that feels steeper than it actually is due to the dearth of solutions.
In Game 1, TNT attacked certain mismatches and took advantage of the gaps in the Magnolia defense. The plan to exploit certain holes and cracks was still a prevalent part of the Tropang Giga's plan in Game Two, but it was really more about their shot-making and composure against an aggressive Hotshots defense that dialed in... except during the times they weren't.
What does that mean?
Let's take a look at some of the things that both teams did in Game Two.
- These are all amateur observations. Feel free to message the writer for any corrections or to point out anything he might have missed; it would certainly be appreciated.
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HOW DID TNT MAKE THAT MANY 3S?
The biggest story in the first two quarters of Game Two was the Tropang Giga's incredible shooting from beyond the arc. TNT made 13-of-24 3s (54.2 percent) — a new PBA finals record for a first half, per league statistician Fidel Mangonon III, and a total that sparked a 66-point 24-minute stretch, the most since 2018.
Brian Heruela made three of his five three-point attempts to finish second behind Mikey Williams' five triples.
But the Tropang Giga weren't actually red-hot right off the bat. Magnolia's started Calvin Abueva over Ian Sangalang, a move which enabled the Hotshots to be more active, aggressive, and synchronized on defense. TNT missed its first three shots, and the ploy seemed like it was going to pay dividends.
TNT's first-quarter barrage (10-for-15 threes) was a mixture of both the team simply hitting its shots — either against good defense or bad Magnolia lapses — and using their opponents' brand of aggressiveness against the Hotshots themselves. A lot of credit goes to the Tropang Giga for moving the ball well whenever they found gaps against hedges and blitzes during screen and roll actions, and in simple drives, where the defense helped but failed to recover back to the shooters; seven of their 16 Game 2 assists came during that 40-point first-quarter assault.
Of course, TNT, like in Game 1, still hunted Sangalang in the pick and roll by a fair amount and found a lot of success.
Magnolia actually shot decently from three-point range relative to their standards (5-for-12, 41.7 percent) but shot subpar overall (41 percent), had more turnovers (11) than assists (six), and hit a poor 40.9 percent (9-for-22) inside the paint during those first two quarters as Poy Erram (who recorded all four of his blocks in the first half), Troy Rosario, and Kelly Williams held the fort.
HOW DID MAGNOLIA SURGE BACK BEFORE FALLING SHORT?
The Hotshots stayed alive in the third quarter and were down just seven, 86-79, to enter the fourth after they scaled back the aggression and looked a tad more connected defense, though that run might have been also aided by some of TNT's carelessness and failure to execute consistently.
During that 12-minute frame after the break, the Tropang Giga offense missed a lot of shots when they sought Sangalang and committed a bunch of turnovers — five, to be exact, which was a lot when you compare that to the nine they committed for the entire first half. Magnolia pounced and scored 11 off of those miscues while recording eight assists and cutting down their own turnover count to just two.
Magnolia kept pressing and was somewhat on a string defensively to start the fourth. This was a pretty nice defensive possession for the Hotshots that led to an Abueva three-point play — about four possessions before an up-and-down scramble led to a Sangalang basket that cut the lead down to four, 90-86, and threaten TNT's cruise.
TNT put Sangalang in the pick and roll in the following possession, where a Jayson Castro skip pass led to a Mikey corner 3 — a simple read that killed Magnolia multiple times in Game 1. The Tropang Giga mixed it up sometimes by pushing the break, but attacking Sangalang paid off during their breakaway run.
Aggravating the issues for Magnolia was Calvin Abueva — a foul magnet, as mentioned in our Game 1 piece — fouling out with over five minutes to go.
Magnolia, meanwhile, suffered from the lack of having multiple bonafide scorers. With Paul Lee struggling again (more on him later), the Hotshots leaned on Sangalang, who scored 25 points. Twelve of those came in the third quarter, where he feasted on drop passes and other easy finds, but he was still relatively inefficient overall (11-for-25 from the field) and just wasn't enough to lift the offense.
The Hotshots are better off setting up Sangalang for quick baskets rather than making him create his own offense. As stated in our Game 1 piece, it's still not a great option for Magnolia to let their frontcourt star post-up because TNT boasts a bevy of solid big man defenders who just came off a series where they guarded the PBA's preeminent post-up star in June Mar Fajardo. By our unofficial count, Sangalang was 4-for-16 in possessions where he posted up or took at least one dribble before trying to score.
HOW BIG OF AN ISSUE IS PAUL LEE'S SHOULDER?
Lee, who continues to deal with a shoulder injury he suffered during Magnolia's semifinals series against Meralco, still cannot get a rhythm going in the finals.
In the last three games that he's played starting in the Hotshots' Game Six versus Meralco, the 32-year-old spitfire guard has managed just 9.3 points on 24.2-percent shooting while having made just one of his 16 attempts from the three-point line.
Magnolia actually set him up well in Game Two, where Lee flew off of screens to get downhill or get open. He just could not get those good looks to go down, and he finished with just 12 points (5-for-12 shooting) while missing all six tries from downtown.
The Hotshots are in deep trouble if Lee isn't in the pink of health because they just don't have enough scoring options right now. Sangalang isn't enough to carry an entire offense by himself, while Abueva's shot creation is erratic. Mark Barroca is more of a point guard than a scoring guard despite being efficient this conference, while Jio Jalalon and Rome dela Rosa aren't realistic go-to options. Aris Dionisio isn't quite there yet offensively, though he does have some nice potential down the line. Jerrick Ahanmisi has great range and gravity, but his defense offsets any of his gains on offense.
If Magnolia has any tricks up its sleeve, Game Three is definitely the time to lay them all out. Only one team in the entire history of professional basketball has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, and the difference here is that the Hotshots don't have the personnel to climb out of that hole. Another TNT win should be the nail to the coffin in this series.
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