Dickel’s turn to adjust
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - August 14, 2019 - 12:00am

One team will go up, 3-2, in the best-of-7 PBA Commissioner’s Cup finals after Game 5 between San Miguel Beer and TNT at the Smart Araneta Coliseum tonight, meaning the clincher could come in Game 6 on Friday.

The pattern has been alternating winners since Game 1 with TNT taking the opener, San Miguel winning Game 2, TNT bouncing back in Game 3 and the Beermen tying up the count in Game 4. If the pattern holds, TNT should prevail tonight but not if San Miguel can help it.

In Game 4, San Miguel coach Leo Austria made key adjustments on both ends. On offense, the main adjustment was in June Mar Fajardo’s mobility. In Game 3, Fajardo scattered 27 points as San Miguel’s primary option at the post. The downside was San Miguel sacrificed ball movement, limiting multiple touches. Guards Alex Cabagnot, Chris Ross and Terrence Romeo shot a combined 73 points in Game 2 which San Miguel won in double OT. But in Game 3, they scored only 21 together and San Miguel lost. Because the guards weren’t as involved in the offense and the ball kept finding its way to Fajardo at the low block, it was easier for TNT to anticipate San Miguel’s play which became predictable. Fajardo often went back-to-the-basket in a grind-it-out tactic with Terrence Jones his main defender. 

It was different in Game 4. Instead of repeatedly backing in, Fajardo set up high screens and rolled or sealed to turn around for quick layups. Fajardo’s activity opened up opportunities for teammates to score and the adjustment was reflected in San Miguel’s edge in assists, 26-15 compared to TNT’s advantage in the same category, 23-19 in Game 3. Fajardo took only 14 field goal attempts in Game 4, down from 17 in Game 3 but they were higher quality shots. San Miguel was less predictable and put a strain on TNT’s defensive schemes. Chris McCullough was more aggressive in attacking the rim in Game 4 and that, too, was a major adjustment. He had six offensive boards in Game 4 compared to four in Game 3 and his assist to Fajardo off a double team in the late going was crucial. 

On defense, Arwind Santos was key. He scored only two points on 1-of-2 from the floor but played 23:15 minutes, much longer than his 16:10 in Game 3.  Austria sent in Santos to keep R. R. Pogoy in check, particularly in the fourth period, and the Spiderman threw a web to stifle the TNT guard. For the first time in the finals, Pogoy failed to score in double figures, finishing with nine points on 3-of-12 from the floor. Pogoy hit 13 in Game 1, 17 in Game 2 and 29 in Game 3 so his trend of ascending points was broken. In the fourth quarter of Game 4, Pogoy was held scoreless by Santos.

With four games down, only one stat stands out as the barometer – rebounding. In Game 1, TNT had more boards, 47-43 and won, 109-96. In Game 2, the Beermen took the edge, 57-55, and won, 127-125 in double OT. In Game 3, TNT claimed more rebounds, 51-46 and prevailed, 115-105. In Game 4, San Miguel outrebounded TNT, 55-46 and won, 106-101. Rebounding control is critical because it generates more possessions and allows a team to dictate tempo. TNT, for instance, likes to play a deliberate half-court set because coach Mark Dickel employs a short rotation with a crippled lineup. San Miguel, on the other hand, prefers an up-and-down pace to tire out the KaTropa and exploit its advantage in firepower. 

Three-point conversions were a barometer in the first three games but in Game 4, TNT had more triples, 13-9 and lost. What killed TNT’s chances to erect a 3-1 series lead was Jones’ poor free throw shooting. Jones missed 10 charities and if he had shot only 60 percent, the KaTropa would’ve won. San Miguel’s winning margin was five points and if Jones hit 60 percent from the line, TNT would’ve won by four. That’s how close it was despite TNT playing four men at least 40 minutes compared to two for San Miguel.

In Game 5 tonight, the survivor will take a huge lead in what was been transformed into a best-of-3 series. That means the winner will need only one more victory to clinch while the loser has to win two in a row.  Austria made his adjustments in Game 4 and now, it’s Dickel’s turn to stem the tide. Perhaps, Dickel could goad Fajardo into more low-post action if he’s defended by someone other than Jones. That way, TNT could influence what San Miguel will do on offense. Dickel could run double high screens to create more movement for pops or rolls and force mismatches if San Miguel switches. Jones might also consider more post-ups rather than settle for outside shots. Most importantly, TNT can’t afford anyone to get into early foul trouble because it would further limit Dickel’s rotation. No doubt, Game 5 will be a humdinger.

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