Chot back in PBA finals

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

It didn’t take long for TNT coach Chot Reyes to make his presence felt in his PBA comeback after a nine-year absence. Returning to the Tropa bench this season, he led the team to the Philippine Cup finals and is now four wins away from capturing his ninth title since his PBA debut as head coach with Purefoods in 1993. What a whirlwind ride for the five-time PBA Coach of the Year. Now, Reyes is up against Magnolia in the race for the crown, the same franchise where his head coaching journey began.

Reyes hasn’t won a PBA crown since the 2012 Philippine Cup so he’s overdue. Magnolia coach Chito Victolero bagged his only title in the 2018 Governors Cup so he, too, is looking to add to his trophy collection. Their styles are both anchored on defense and the expectation is it’ll be a hotly-contested finals.

Reyes is a master tactician and a whiz at surprise adjustments. In Game 7 of the San Miguel Beer semifinal series, he started Jayson Castro and Ryan Reyes for the first time this conference. Reyes rolled out four guards in his first five and Kelly Williams was the undersized center. Playing small set the tone for the contest where the plan was to wear down the Beermen with pressure, pace and panic. The outcome was decisive as TNT won, 97-79. Marcio Lassiter marked his first scoreless outing this season and Mo Tautuaa, hampered by a knee issue, hit only two points after delivering 24 in Game 6.

Williams’ return has been a major positive for TNT. He missed the first four games of the San Miguel series to undergo quarantine then averaged 9.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in the last three. Reyes said matching up against Rafi Reavis won’t mean Williams is out to score. “Kelly never really looks to score unless the opportunity presents itself or the situation calls for it,” said Reyes. It’ll be an intriguing confrontation in the middle as Reavis is long but isn’t as strong or crafty or offensively versatile as Williams.

With six unrestricted free agents or “kurimaws” in the lineup, Reyes said he reentered the PBA picture assuring the Tropa there’s no pressure to win the championship. “I came into this with just one thought for the team – to get better,” he said. “I spoke to the players about this and they bought into it. I told the vets you don’t have anything to prove, just improve.” Clearly, Reyes’ message resounded loud and clear.

In the elims, TNT defeated Magnolia, 83-76, in a typically low-scoring encounter with Williams compiling 13 points and 15 rebounds. Rotation will be key in the finals because in a grind-it-out series, depth is a factor. Six TNT players are averaging at least 20 minutes, two over 30. In contrast, seven Magnolia players are averaging at least 20 minutes, three over 30. In terms of age, Magnolia’s average is 31.2 years compared to TNT’s 30.5. The seniors (at least 35) on both squads are Ryan Reyes, 38, Castro, 35, Williams, 39, Mark Barroca, 35 and Reavis, 44.

Magnolia’s aggressive and physical defense is reflected in its No. 1 standing in most fouls (26.2). Barroca, Calvin Abueva, Jackson Corpuz, Rome de la Rosa and Jio Jalalon are bruising defenders. Outside of Rain Or Shine, Magnolia is No. 1 in defense, allowing 83.8 points and TNT, No. 2, giving up 84.8. TNT’s defense is evident in its glowing stats as No. 1 in opponents turnovers (18.2), turnover points (20.8) and steals (8.9). On the other end, TNT is No. 1 in least turnovers (14) and No. 2 in fastbreak points (11.7). Magnolia is No. 1 in least fastbreak points allowed (6.1), No. 2 in lowest three-point field goal percentage allowed (27) and No. 2 in least rebounds allowed (45.7).  TNT and Magnolia take pride in their defensive ability which makes for a thrilling finals.

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