Once more with feeling?
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - August 1, 2019 - 12:00am

TNT hasn’t won a PBA title since the 2014-15 Commissioner’s Cup. That’s a drought of 11 straight conferences where the MVP Group’s flagship franchise has been deprived of a championship. The last time TNT made it to the finals was in the 2017 Commissioner’s Cup where the KaTropa were beaten by the San Miguel Beermen in six games of a best-of-7 series.

Tonight, TNT hopes to end its semifinal series against Barangay Ginebra and clinch a spot in the Commissioner’s Cup finals. TNT blew a chance to close out at the MOA Arena last Tuesday as Ginebra won, 80-72, to notch its first victory in the best-of-5 series after losing two in a row. Ginebra’s back is against the wall and coach Tim Cone will attempt to survive another do-or-die situation and force a winner-take-all Game 5 on Saturday.

In Games 1 and 2, TNT averaged 15 three-point conversions compared to Ginebra’s six makes. That’s a whopping difference of 24 points, a hefty cushion considering TNT won the opener by three and the rematch by 17. Another disparity in TNT’s favor was in rebounding. In Game 1, TNT had more boards, 44-37 and in Game 2, it was 47-39. 

Reviewing the Game 2 numbers, the glaring revelation was Ginebra import Justin Brownlee’s stat line. Brownlee, a familiar figure in PBA wars and now in his sixth conference, had 25 points and 13 rebounds with zero assist. Ginebra finished with 16 dimes, way below its conference average of 25.7, tops in the league. TNT’s connection rate from three-point distance was another cause for Cone’s concern – the KaTropa knocked down 16-of-44 compared to Ginebra’s 5-of-23. TNT’s import Terrence Jones wound up with a triple double, collecting 15 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists. His all-around effort was a third reason why Cone went home that night with a severe headache.

For Ginebra to avoid losing by a sweep, Cone came up with major adjustments in Game 3. First, he refocused Brownlee’s offense. The challenge was to get the locals more involved in the offense. Second, he thought of a plan to take away TNT’s three-point rhythm. And third, he figured out a way to make Jones less of a facilitator and more of a one-on-one scorer. That meant starting with a small lineup of Brownlee at center surrounded by L. A. Tenorio, Scottie Thompson, Stanley Pringle and Mark Caguioa. The small combination allowed Ginebra to play cat-and-mouse with more quickness to rotate on open shooters and switch off screen-rolls. It also invited TNT to drive instead of shoot from the outside. The ploy worked as TNT went 1-of-10 from distance in the first period and buried only five for the game. For the first time in the semis, TNT had more points in the paint than Ginebra, 50-32. That’s how Cone planned it.

Brownlee concentrated on defending Jones who relished the challenge of attacking the former Best Import and putting him in foul trouble. Instead of executing pick-and-rolls for Jones, TNT went to more one-on-one action which Cone wanted. As a result, Jones took 25 attempts from the floor, his most in the semis (he had 13 in Game 1 and 20 in Game 2) and compiled only four assists (he had 7 in Game 1 and 10 in Game 2). Jones also had eight turnovers, his most in the semis.

Brownlee’s transformation was evident as he finished with a conference-low 14 points but collected 11 rebounds and eight assists. For a scorching scorer who had games of 44, 49 and 50 in the elims, it was a dramatic shift in roles. The bottom line was it worked. Brownlee, for sure, didn’t mind sacrificing his points. He was named Best Player of the Game.

TNT active coaching consultant Mark Dickel has two more chances to clinch so he’s far from pushing the panic button. Troy Rosario’s activity as the screener in pick-and-roll situations is critical and his ability to wiggle free for backdoor layups against Ginebra’s zone is a huge advantage. Jones’ tendency to drive to his strong side, the left, is something Ginebra will address by overplaying so he has to be less predictable in attacking the basket. Ginebra dictated the matchups in Game 3 and forced TNT to be reactive instead of proactive. Dickel will want to control the tempo in Game 4 and play according to his music, not Cone’s. Don Trollano’s hustle was impactful in Game 3 but more than that, Dickel will need major contributions from Jayson Castro and R. R. Pogoy on both ends.

Ginebra will try to stick it to TNT once more with feeling tonight. But TNT will be ready to stand its ground. Cone got the drop on Dickel in Game 3. Dickel is determined to make sure it won’t happen again.

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