Manila Clasico packs Big Dome

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - October 26, 2015 - 10:00am

Whenever fierce rivals Real Madrid and F. C. Barcelona take to the pitch in soccer, it’s called El Clasico to signify the amazing drawing power of every exciting encounter. The PBA version is known as the Manila Clasico, the term of endearment of each game between Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and the Star Hotshots, the pro league’s most popular teams.

Last Sunday, the Smart Araneta Coliseum played host to the season’s first Manila Clasico and not surprisingly, the Big Dome was packed with an attendance of 16,576. The game was particularly intriguing because former Hotshots coach Tim Cone had moved to Ginebra, bringing along assistant Richard del Rosario and triangle operator Joe De Vance and left behind assistant Jason Webb to take over the Star reins.

Cone, the PBA’s winningest coach with 18 titles under his belt, has led Alaska and the Star franchises to Grand Slams. His championship lineage is what convinced the San Miguel Group to make the switch as Ginebra hasn’t won a title since the 2008 Fiesta Cup. That’s a drought of 19 straight conferences. Last season, Ginebra didn’t even qualify for the semifinals in any of the three conferences, finishing fifth in the Philippine Cup and eighth in the Commissioner’s and Governors Cups. If there’s anyone who can turn things around for Ginebra, it’s Cone and he accepted the challenge with both eyes open.

But Ginebra’s patented run-and-gun style isn’t exactly what Cone is known for. Cone is a Tex Winter disciple who anchors his winning ways on the triangle system or the triple post offense. It’s an equal opportunity system that involves movement, spacing and finding the open man in a deliberate half-court setting. Over the past 13 years, Ginebra’s Mark (The Spark) Caguioa and Jay-Jay Helterbrand wore out the soles of their sneakers playing at a break-neck pace. Now, they’re playing methodical, patient basketball in the triangle. But the positive thing is it’s a style where they can thrive. It’s also a style that could extend their careers with less wear and tear on the legs. Caguioa, 35, and Helterbrand, 39, shouldn’t find it difficult to embrace Cone’s system.

* * * *

The problem that Cone faces isn’t in selling his system to the players. It’s in getting them to familiarize themselves with the execution, given a constricted period of time. The bottom line is the adjustment has to be quick and immediate. In the Philippine Cup that opened last week, teams play each other only once in the single-round eliminations then the last two drop out of contention, the top two advance to the semifinals outright and the remaining eight square off in the quarterfinals with the third, fourth, fifth and sixth seeds enjoying a twice-to-beat advantage.

On the Hotshots side, Webb is introducing a more free-wheeling approach. He wants a frenetic pace and will go deep in his rotation to make sure there are fresh legs on the court to maintain a fast beat. It’s easier to adjust to this style than what Cone has to do at Ginebra. With the Star, it will boil down to conditioning as Webb is uncompromising in demanding hustle and aggressiveness on both ends from start to finish.

In Star’s season-opening game against Rain Or Shine last Wednesday, the Hotshots lost steam down the stretch. They led up to the third quarter then collapsed in the payoff period, surrendering 27 points to the Elasto Painters. In the Philippine Cup last season, the Hotshots gave up an average of 83 points. Against Rain Or Shine, they yielded 96. 

So entering the game last Sunday, Webb knew what the Hotshots had to do – tighten up defensively, keep enough gas in the tank for the homestretch and set the tone early by playing aggressively. In the first period alone, Webb sent in 12 players, five more than Cone.  James Yap led the early charge as he was unstoppable in delivering eight points in the opening quarter, his aggressiveness rubbing off on teammates. Ginebra could only score 13 points in the first 12 minutes while the Star sizzled for 37.

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Star raced to a 31-point lead, 44-13, in the second period, as Ginebra badly groped for form. At the end of the first half, Ginebra was stalled by 13 turnovers to the Star’s eight and the Hotshots had more bench points, 31-5. 

But slowly, Cone’s boys started to get the hang of things. Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar began to realize that playing off each other rather than trying to create on their own will lead to easy shots in the triangle. After a while, the Twin Towers made things happen playing together. De Vance couldn’t get going with his new teammates but rookie Scottie Thompson was a revelation by playing the entire fourth period, finishing with five points, three rebounds and a game-high six assists. Ginebra trimmed the gap to eight before the Hotshots wrapped it up, 86-78.

The Star survived another meltdown in the fourth period where the Hotshots scored only 15 to Ginebra’s 26 as the Hotshots’ cushion proved too big to eclipse. Ginebra’s lack of familiarity was evident in 22 turnovers from which the Star scored 24 points. Webb’s extended rotation produced 42 points from the bench, a huge factor in the win. P. J. Simon and Mark Barroca hit 12 apiece to back up Yap. Marc Pingris was also a solid performer with six points, 13 rebounds and five assists.

Although Cone’s Ginebra debut was a loss, he couldn’t be too sad. As the game wore on, Ginebra looked a lot less disjointed on the floor. Cone’s consolation was the Barangay fought until the last buzzer, coming back from 31 down and never gave up. As for the Hotshots, they’re a thrill to watch because Webb’s approach is relentless. The fans got their money’s worth with the Manila Clasico last Sunday.


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