The Magnolia Hotshots are back in the Philippine Cup finals and ready for redemption. After a rough 1-4 start to the conference, the Pambansang Manok somehow managed to punch their ticket to a finals trip and are poised to avenge their last season’s Philippine Cup finals loss against the four-time defending champion San Miguel Beermen.

SHORT SEMIS RECAP

Unlike SMB who easily ousted the Phoenix Fuel Masters in five games in their Semifinals series, the Magnolia Hotshots had to go through hell and high water in their Semis matchup against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in seven grueling games.

After being down 0-2 in the series, the Magnolia used their championship poise and experience and eventually took a 3-2 lead in the series before settling down for an ugly, gritty overtime Game Seven win last Sunday to book another trip to the Finals.

WHAT THEY CAN GET TAKE ADVANTAGE OF

On paper, the Beermen should have all the advantages in this series. They have a multiple scoring champion coming off the bench and an all-time great starting five which includes three all stars, a former MVP, and the most dominant PBA player ever in Junemar Fajardo.

Offensively, the Beermen are top notch and unmatched in the league and they’re no slouch as well in defense. But if there is one thing the Magnolia Hotshots can take advantage of against the Beermen, it should be their defense. Besides, it is their defense that brought them back to the Finals in the first place.

The beauty of this Magnolia team is that every player in coach Chito Victolero’s rotation can defend. Led by their guard corps of Mark Barroca, Jio Jalalon, and Justin Melton, which is probably the scariest bunch of full court defenders in the league. They are bulldogs on the hard court and should match up well against SMB’s Chris Ross, Alex Cabagnot, Terrence Romeo and Marcio Lassiter.

A perfect example of how elite Magnolia’s defense has been throughout the conference is in their do or die game seven overtime duel against Rain or Shine in the semis in which they limited the Painters to just 60 points. Although they managed to score just three more against ROS in that game, it epitomized their toughness and the defensive poise in the playoffs.

Against SMB, Magnolia should make every game as ugly as possible and make it a defensive slugfest all throughout the series because if they fell on a shooting contest against the four-time champions, then they are in for a lot of trouble.

WHAT TO GUARD AGAINST

Two things: SMB’s three-point shooting and Junemar Fajardo.

Guarding Fajardo is probably the tallest order in the PBA today and Magnolia should deploy every defensive scheme as possible to do just that. Whether it is a mix up of double teaming Junemar in the post when he starts his initial move or playing him straight up one on one, the Hotshots should put in a variety of defensive tactics against the Kraken, force him to adjust so he can work for every basket.

Though Junemar is the main man for SMB, they are their absolute best when their long-range shots are falling in and this is where Magnolia should also be wary about. Throughout the eliminations, the Beermen led the league in 3Pm converting 14 a game and the Hotshots should aim to keep SMB to less than 10 threes per game for them to successfully neutralize the offensive attacks of the Beermen.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Look, Magnolia and SMB are two of the most talented teams in the PBA and if we are talking about matchups that will surely electrify the viewers then these two teams are not shorthanded in that regard. I could easily pick out either a Paul Lee-Terrence Romeo showdown or a Junemar Fajardo-Ian Sangalang battle in the post or even a Jio Jalalon-Alex Cabagnot mid-range slugfest.

But two matchups that we should look out for this is the matchups of Mark Barroca and Chris Ross and Matt Ganuelas-Rosser and Rome Dela Rosa.

The duel of Barroca and Ross is a match made in heaven. Both are their respective team’s primary defender in the guard position and are considered as two of the very best defensive stoppers in the league with Barroca averaging 1.64 steals per game while Ross pickpocketing two a game.

More than to their defensive warfare, however, Ross and Barroca are both the barometer for SMB and Magnolia in their offensive attacks. Ross has been averaging an impressive 8.18 dimes per game during the regular season and when his outside shooting is working, the Beermen is just a different beast of a team. Meanwhile, Barroca has been a steady force for Magnolia with 13 points per game and 4.18 assists per game and has always been one of the team’s best closers and big-time performers.

On the other hand, the matchup of Ganuelas-Rosser and Dela Rosa will be a battle of the X-factors. During their respective semifinal series, both players played crucial roles for their teams.

In Game 4 of the SMB-Phoenix series, Ganuelas-Rosser banked in an outstanding stat line of 8 points, 7 assists and 5 steals while also showing his impressive off ball game, perfectly timing his cuts whenever Junemar is being double teamed.

Dela Rosa, meanwhile, has been a late revelation for the Hotshots ever since coach Victolero gave him ample minutes and relegated him as team’s primary wing defender. He has since helped Magnolia in stamping their persona as a defensive juggernaut.

As stellar as the cast of SMB-Magnolia will be, expect these four defensive dynamos to be rough and physical once the show gets going and be the main key guys for their respective teams which could lead to an epic finals series.

WHY YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN MAGNOLIA

In the world of basketball, two of the widely accepted statements are these:

Everyone loves a Cinderella sports story.

Defense wins championships.

And Magnolia checks both this conference.

They have been Cinderella team so far, from their rough start to finishing on hot note at the end of the eliminations, to eliminating rivals Ginebra in the quarterfinals in three games, up to the grueling seven game showdown against Rain or shine in the semis.

Now, they have a chance to finish their storybook of a conference as they face the mighty San Miguel.

And they could do it through their defense. Their defense that once again led them to a championship after a four-year drought during the 2018 Governor’s Cup. Their defense made their opponents fear them during this playoff run. Their defense that made them benchwarmers like Dela Rosa and Rodney Brondial key contributors for a champion team. Their defense that somehow gave Rafi Reavis a fountain of youth and become one of the league’s premier defensive anchor once again.

And if there is one thing that could break the championship streak of a dynasty team in San Miguel, it will be Magnolia’s defense.