Last Tuesday, December 3, 2013, the Meralco Bolts were able to end Barangay Ginebra’s three-game winning streak and deal Coach Ato Agustin’s squad its 1st loss in the tournament.
Entering into the game, nobody was able to solve the puzzle that is Ginebra’s high octane attack. With a starting five of Tenorio, Caguioa, Ellis, Aguilar and Slaughter that’s complemented by relentless energy off the bench in Ababou, Reyes, Monfort, Helterbrand, Baracael and Forrester, many consider the Barangay as the team to beat this conference.
It came as a shock to many then, that Meralco dominated this game for the most part en-route to a 100-87 win.
Just how did Coach Ryan Gregorio and the Meralco Bolts “upset” Ginebra? We offer our thoughts below:
In Ginebra’s previous three games against San Mig Coffee, Rain or Shine and Globalport, all three teams chose to focus much of their defensive attention towards directly stopping Ginebra’s twin towers, Slaughter and Aguilar.
Specifically on pick and rolls, the defensive pair would usually make it a point to shade the lane in hopes of containing the rolling big while letting the guard try to keep in step with Tenorio. They played what’s called a “soft zone” where the big hangs back. This allows him to cover the ball handler (in this case, Tenorio) allowing his teammate to recover when they’re stopped in their tracks by Greg or Japeth.
In theory, this is actually a good way of negating Ginebra’s frontcourt advantage, but it seemed that the three teams above forgot that Ginebra has arguably the best point guard in the PBA running their offense.
The big problem with playing “soft zone” is when the ball handler is crafty and can keep his dribble alive under pressure. This is because the ball handler can keep two defenders on a string and make it difficult for the other guy to recover to his man (the defender of the big man). They probe and prod and wait for that moment when the two defenders make a mistake – a mistimed recovery by the big and Tenorio gets a free pass to the lane wreaking more havoc, a slow-to-recover or passive ballhandler defender and Tenorio gets a wide open jumper off-the-bounce. His 14 point and 9 assists per game, while shooting 45% from the field in their first three wins is a testament of this.
Against Meralco though, Tenorio ran into a different kind of defensive coverage, as seen in the video below.
Coach Ryan Gregorio essentially took a page out of Eric Spoelstra’s notebook by blitzing or trapping Tenorio high on the pick and roll time and again. Using their length and speed to trap him and cut off passing lanes to the rolling bigs or safety valve outlets, the Ginebra offense stagnated and was forced to score on ways that were outside the regular flow of their offense.
Okay, so Meralco got the stops they wanted, but how did they put points up on the board? After losing starting power forward Reynel Hugnatan to a sprained ankle two minutes into the game, Meralco was forced to go small, choosing instead to try and make Ginebra try to keep pace with faster line-ups.
One of the core aspects of playing small is having four players out on the perimeter and one big inside (in sets called 4 in, 1 out. DUH), the Bolts utilized this perfectly in this game, running some awesome sets that got them easy looks at the basket.
Notice that there were even times when not a single Meralco player was inside the paint as Sena was setting picks and the floor couldn’t have been more open when he rolled to the basket or caught a pass and when Ginebra’s help did come, multiple Meralco players were open along the perimeter ready to shoot an open three when the skip pass is made.
They did the same to get John Wilson two open threes late in the third. Notice how awkward the Ginebra defense is, especially on the second play where they look unsure if they should follow the Meralco “bigs” out on the perimeter.
One player that definitely took advantage of this extra space (and wider lanes) was Mike Cortez, who was constantly beating his defenders off the dribble, drawing in the (late) help and finding the open man.
Lastly, the Bolts also got a breakout game from Jared Dillinger (25 points, 10 rebounds) and it was no coincidence that it came with him playing the power forward position mainly against Japeth Aguilar, who Dillinger out-everything-ed in this game.
As of December 3, Meralco actually is tied with GlobalPort as having the league’s best offense with a 102.7 Offensive Rating (ORTG), is third in defense with a 94.1 Defensive Rating (DRTG), while maintaining the highest Effective Field Goal Rate (eFG%) and is 2nd only to Petron in terms of eFG differential (+7.1%). This essentially means that as of Tuesday, the Bolts can be placed within the top two of the league’s best offensive and defensive teams.
After an impressive win like the one against Ginebra, the question for Meralco would now be if they could sustain this style of play and continue to be successful with it. With the returning Cliff Hodge now boasting a consistent (according to him) outside shot, Coach Ryan can realistically keep on playing small with Hodge and Dillinger playing the four and Rabeh and Hugnatan sharing time at the five.
In a league where almost every team made moves to try and counter the emergence of June Mar Fajardo, it’s definitely a breath of fresh air to see a team think out of the box and (at least for one game), get the desired results, despite bucking conventional wisdom.
Thanks of course, to Nico Baguio for helping me write this up, we hope you enjoyed it. :)
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