The playoffs tend to bring out the worst and the best in players. Possessions hold more value because the margin of error is very small. As such, the post-season is when legends are made.
After close to a month of quarterfinals and semi-finals action, the PBA Commissioner’s Cup is now drawing to a close. Only two teams are left standing – the Alaska Aces and Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. With two completely opposite teams going at it, who comes out on top?
It’s been one long journey for Barangay Ginebra. Their awful start now forgotten, Ginebra looks forward to the end of an almost miraculous journey in the playoffs where they upset the two Philippine Cup Finalists in consecutive rounds and having their best player and marquee guy, Mark Caguioa, on the sidelines.
Ginebra continued its fast-paced assault through the playoffs, with more than 93.8 possessions per 48 minutes – almost two full possessions more than their conference average. As a result, their offense, in the playoffs has been three points per possession better than their conference rating. They currently score 98.8 points per 100-possession in the playoffs.
While their defense has remained steady, it’s the increase in their offensive production that allowed them to push through. The biggest difference in their offense comes in the form of a more controlled attack from LA Tenorio, a rejuvenated Jayjay Helterbrand and more minutes for Kerby Raymundo.
Tenorio actually struggled this conference, both in the regular conference and the playoffs. His PER dipped way below average and is currently at 12.4 (down from 14.4, his PER in the regular conference). His ORTG hasn’t been better as well (down to 86.4 points per 100-possession). He still can’t buy a basket, but the most important thing is how Tenorio’s orchestrating the offense and limiting Ginebra’s turnovers by almost a full 4 percent (15.8% turnover rate in the conference, 11.9% in the playoffs).
Helterbrand, for a moment, found it in him to co-exist well within the framework of Ginebra’s quick and pesky three-guard sets. He has operated as a spot-up shooter and pseudo-creator for Ginebra. For the playoffs, Helterbrand made 12-of-33 three-point shots, after making just 8-of-35 from deep in the elimination round.
Coach Alfrancis Chua finally decided to give Kerby Raymundo the minutes he deserved. He was not healthy to start the conference and was brought along slowly before his minutes spiked up to 30.7 per game from 14 minutes per outing.
As a result of playing with players that fit him better (Macklin in the low post, Tenorio to create for him), Raymundo has seen an uptick in both his efficiency (100 ORTG in the elimination round off the bench, 104 ORTG in the playoffs as a starter). His rebounding splits are down (from a split of 10/22/16 to 5/15/10) though, but that’s probably because he’s playing with Macklin more. In any case, rebounding isn’t his role anyway. It’s to be the high post and midrange threat that Tenorio and Macklin need, and he’s done it wonderfully.
The real ‘Boring Death Machine?’
My colleagues coined the term “boring death machine” in honor of the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters, given their unflashy, but deadly manner of play. But I think if there’s any team that’s worthy of this moniker for this conference, it’s Alaska. They always have a game plan and they stick to it.
I’ve said it over and over again, Alaska wins by slowing the pace down and forcing you to miss shots. Defense is all about “five guys playing on a string” and no team exemplifies this more than Alaska. Their rotations have been on-time in every scenario.
Ball screens? Big drops down low, weakside defender stunts roll man, second weakside defender zones on two players. Off-screens? Soft show to force players to catch the ball farther, ballhandler defender drops down low in case of a successful moving, off-screen catch, and two other defenders on the weakside step into the paint.
It’s like watching a symphony but in basketball. Everybody loves points – the three-point shots, the dunks, the acrobatic lay-ups and finishes. Nobody enjoys taking the joy out of making shots, except Alaska. They’ll kill you with the right rotations and the proper ball pressure.
While Ginebra pushes the pace and wants to score on you, Alaska grinds the living hell out of your offense. For the playoffs, Alaska actually improved on their already league-leading defense, with a defensive rating of 91.5 (a full 5.5 points better than the playoff rating average of 97). They rank atop most of the defensive measures. Effective Field Goal Defense? First. Turnover Percentage Forced? Second. Free Throw Rate Allowed? Second. Defensive Fastbreak Efficiency? First.
The scary part is that JVee Casio is now back and boy, did he come back ready to play. I’ve said it a couple of times before here in HumbleBola – Alaska will be scary once JVee Casio returns to his offensive form. In the playoffs, JVee Casio is producing almost 100.6 points per 100-possession, seven points better than his conference average.
What was once an average offensive team has now transformed into an excellent offensive team (fourth best in the playoffs), scoring close to 100 points per 100-possession. This resulted in a net efficiency of 8.5 points per 100-possession for Alaska.
It goes without saying, Ginebra has their work cut out for them. Against a team that has been focused (they played a no-bearing game with regular intensity, prior to the playoffs) throughout the season, the Barangay must bring their A-game if they want to continue their Cinderella-run.
What are the keys to the game?
1. Dictate the pace
Both teams are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Alaska wants to grind it out, Ginebra wants to run, run, run. Whoever can impose their will on the game (through pace) will get the upper hand.
Ginebra thrives on quick-hitting ball screens for Tenorio (off a defensive rebound) and quick seals from Macklin down low. If Alaska can take those out, then Ginebra will be forced to rely on Tenorio’s shooting (which has been iffy) and lean more heavily on Raymundo and Helterbrand to help space the floor. Alaska, on the other hand, cannot afford to let Ginebra get on a fastbreak spree, lest they wake up the whole Barangay crowd.
2. Three-point shooting
Ginebra’s offense became deadlier due to their shooters starting to actually make their shots. This is especially true for Mac Baracael (who has hit 12 of his 26 3PTA) and Helterbrand, helping them become the second best three-point shooting team in the playoffs. Luckily for Ginebra, Alaska has always allowed more three-point attempts than league average, opting to pack the paint and force opponents to shoot right over them. In the playoffs, Alaska actually allowed the most three-point attempts.
Unluckily for Ginebra, Alaska’s rotations are crisp and they allow the second worst three-point percentage from their opponents. The team that wins the three-point shooting game, whether Ginebra makes a good deal of their attempts or Alaska forces them to miss a lot, will have a significant advantage over the other.
3. Vernon Macklin versus Rob Dozier
I’d be a fool not to bring up this important match-up. Both these players are among the league’s best rebounders, and this has not changed in the playoffs. Dozier has rebounding splits of 13/27/20 in the playoffs, while Macklin clocks in at 11/20/15.5. They will match up against each other and will see themselves battling for rebounds, a lot.
Macklin has played better on the offensive side (ORTG of 115, up from 107). This is in large part because he’s making a lot more free throws than he’s used to (61 percent from the line in the playoffs compared to 47 percent in the elimination round). He’s no longer a liability from the line and that makes him an even greater threat.
Dozier, on the other hand, has been asked to take a smaller load on offense (his USG% is down from 24.6% to 17.8%). In return, he’s focused on the defensive side and has shutdown two of the better imports in the league: Denzel Bowles (San Mig Coffee Mixers) and Mike Dunigan (Air21 Express). He’ll be asked once again to do the same against VMack.
4. Mark Caguioa
A question that will definitely change the complexion of the series – can Caguioa play? And if he can, can he play at a high level? And if he can, can he do it without taking Tenorio out of the game?
If he can, Alaska is in for an epic battle.
Ginebra has a tall task in front of them. They are playing against a team that’s been nothing short of brilliant in this conference. They will be the clear underdogs in this series. But one thing I’ve learned in these playoffs, never ever assume that Ginebra won’t give a fight. They may lose the battle, but they’ll die swinging like crazy. They did it against Rain or Shine (facing a twice-to-beat disadvantage), and won. They did it against Talk ‘N Text (facing a team that’s deeper), and won. They’ll do it against Alaska, for sure. But can they win?
#NeverSayDie or #GatasRepublik?
This article also appears on GMA News Online