Live or die
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - April 28, 2019 - 12:00am

Rain or Shine coach Caloy Garcia is a win away from registering his PBA Finals debut and standing in the way to make it happen is Magnolia. The Elasto Painters battle the Pambansang Manok Hotshots in the deciding Game 7 of their Philippine Cup best-of-7 semifinal series at the MOA Arena tonight with the survivor advancing to face San Miguel Beer in the Last Dance starting May 1.

It’s been a long wait to enter the Finals for Garcia who was San Miguel Beer coach Leo Austria’s assistant with Welcoat in the PBL and PBA. If the Painters win tonight, Garcia will go up against his mentor. Garcia, who coached St. Benilde and Letran in the NCAA, was Rain or Shine’s interim head coach for three conferences bridging the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons until Yeng Guiao took over. In 2016, Garcia replaced Guiao at the helm. Guiao went on to coach NLEX and they were reunited with Gilas in the FIBA Asia/Oceania World Cup Qualifiers.

There’s no doubt Garcia has coaching ability, charisma and leadership skills. But barging into the Finals has been a struggle. In seven conferences since succeeding Guiao, Garcia has made it to the Final Four only twice. The first was in the Commissioner’s Cup last season and Rain or Shine finished third, losing to Barangay Ginebra, 3-1, in the best-of-five semis. It’s his second semis appearance this conference and Garcia is tantalizingly close to crashing the Finals party. Garcia’s style is unpredictable, similar to Guiao’s, and likes his bigs to be mobile, physical and unafraid to bang bodies.

Magnolia coach Chito Victolero played in the PBA unlike Garcia and called the shots for Mapua in the NCAA before he was named de facto head coach of Kia in the PBA in 2014. He joined Magnolia as head coach in 2016 and in seven conferences so far, has led the Hotshots to six semifinals and one championship. If Magnolia wins tonight, it will be back-to-back Finals for Victolero who piloted the Hotshots to the Governors Cup crown last season. Victolero is a players’ coach. He’s a master of dictating tempo, exploiting mismatches and keeping the opposition guessing with dizzying rotations.

Both Garcia and Victolero put a premium on defense. And it’s evident in how their duel has unraveled in the semis. Neither team has scored more than 94 points in any of the six games. In Magnolia’s three wins, the Hotshots have held Rain or Shine to an average of 79.7. In the Painters’ three wins, they’ve limited the Hotshots to an average of 79.3. Only one team has scored more than 100 points against Magnolia this conference – San Miguel in a 113-92 win. And only one team has scored more than 100 points against Rain or Shine this conference – Blackwater in a 111-99 decision.

The stats prove why Magnolia and Rain or Shine are the PBA’s top defensive teams. The Hotshots rank No. 1 in least points allowed (84.8), least assists allowed (18.6), lowest field goal percentage allowed (38.4) and least second chance points allowed (10.9) while the Painters are No. 1 in lowest two-point field goal percentage allowed (43.3) and least fastbreak points allowed (9.2).

Magnolia started the conference on a sour note, going 0-3 then 1-4 before winning five of its next six games with the only loss in that stretch a 97-93 overtime defeat to Ginebra. In the semis, Magnolia started slowly and fell behind, 0-2. Three straight wins put Magnolia on the brink of closing it out in Game 6 but Rain or Shine stormed back to win, 91-81, last Friday, arranging the clincher tonight.

In the first five games of the semis, Magnolia outrebounded Rain or Shine consistently. The Hotshots had more rebounds, 54-48 in Game 1, 52-41 in Game 2, 71-49 in Game 3, 53-43 in Game 4 and 59-46 in Game 5. Suddenly, the Painters broke the trend in Game 6, outboarding Magnolia, 41-39.

The common factor in Magnolia’s three wins was the Hotshots’ dominance in rebounds, points in the paint, second chance points and field goal percentage. In contrast, the common factor in Rain or Shine’s three wins was the Painters’ edge in three-point conversions, assists, less turnovers and turnover points. Rain or Shine won Game 6 because the Painters took away Magnolia’s advantage in rebounding, points in the paint and second chance points.

Game 6 was a cliffhanger with 12 lead changes and 14 deadlocks. The score was tied, 62-all, entering the fourth period and all it took to break the game open was one man waxing hot. That man was sophomore Rey Nambatac who fired 13 of his 16 points in the payoff quarter. Six Painters contributed points in the last 12 minutes compared to four from Magnolia as Rain or Shine outscored the Hotshots, 29-19.

Victolero and Garcia deploy their troops like chess pieces, making for an intriguing clash of wits. For Magnolia, control of the boards is key. For Rain or Shine, forcing turnovers and knocking down threes are vital. One team will live and the other will die at the MOA Arena tonight.

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