It’s the playoffs once again after a wild elimination round that saw a couple of rising stars help lead their teams to top records. It’s probably safe to say that experience still won out in the end. First up, we have the top seeded team after the eliminations and the conference’s defending champions. 

The Journey

TNT came into the conference with a lot of hype thanks to former NBA forward Terrence Jones. And they lived it up to it by being the hottest team in the league. They started their campaign with back-to-back wins before being routed by Northport. That seemed to only fuel their efforts as they went on a tear winning eight straight to lock up the number one seed with a 10-1 record. Alaska’s tenacity and desperation proved to be a challenge as the KaTropa were routed by 30 in their first game before they finally pulled away in the second half of their do-or-die match to march into the semis.

As for Ginebra, they took a bit of a different route. They struggled with a 3-3 record early in the conference, with numerous injuries piling up. They also had to resort to playing Justin Brownlee whole games just to have a chance to win, punctuated by an overtime victory against the San Miguel Beermen that saw him play the full 53 minutes for three-point win. It was then that they decided to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade that landed them Stanley Pringle. It wasn’t always a smooth transition but the acquisition helped them to a 7-4 record to finish fourth and set up an early encounter with the Magnolia Hotshots. It was a close first game but Ginebra’s superior talent and chemistry helped them advance.

Elims Matchup: TNT def. Ginebra 104-96

Their eliminations match-up was all the way back in June 12 with TNT just starting their monster streak while Ginebra was struggling for answers. The game itself featured a lot of back and forth with TNT roaring to a head start before Ginebra caught up. In the second half, it was Ginebra’s turn to take a double digit lead but the KaTropa found a way to erase it and take the W in the fourth quarter. They leaned on RR Pogoy’s career-high and Jones’ monster near-quadruple double.

What to watch out for

All eyes will definitely be on the import match-up especially with how similarly they are relied upon to run their teams’ offense with some slight differences. Brownlee has been with Ginebra seemingly forever so he knows the system in and out. He doesn’t always need the ball or to isolate to be effective but he’s required to especially when the offense bogs down. As for Jones, TNT has been heavily reliant on his creation and ability to find the open shooter. Again, it can get pretty stagnant especially with minimal off-ball action going.

That’s why it’ll be key to see how both coaches choose to defend each import. TNT has a slew of physical wings they can throw at Brownlee, including Pogoy, Don Trollano and Tony Semerad. With Pringle now in the mix, that should help in that they need one of those elite defenders on him instead of rotating all three on Brownlee. As for Ginebra, they might want to look at how Alaska and Northport bothered and got into Jones’ head. It’s not a coincidence that the KaTropa’s two losses were his worst games, especially in shooting, taking care of the ball and overall body language. Do they throw Joe DeVance and Japeth Aguilar at him? Maybe even the barely used Raymond Aguilar and Prince Caperal? Do they go zone and risk him play-making all game?

It’ll also be an interesting battle narrative-wise with Jones being crowned the new standard of imports going up against a proven and well-tested Brownlee.

Lastly, the Stanley Pringle-Jayson Castro match-up enjoys several similarities as well. Both quick, crafty guards and pretty much relied upon as secondary play makers if Brownlee/Jones can’t create good looks. The roles are a bit reversed this time with Castro having all the experience in the world running this team. He can easily just call for a high pick and get to work. Pringle, meanwhile, is still learning the ropes and figuring out how he can fit into his team with more off-ball duty.

There’s no better way for Head Coach Mark Dickel Bong Ravena and TNT to prove that they’re a legitimate threat and the new standard going up against the defending champs. As for Tim Cone and the Barangay, they get another chance to prove that they are still kings of these import-laden conferences. After all, champions are made in the playoffs, not in the eliminations.

Prediction: TNT has enough of a hot hand to win one game but Ginebra ultimately takes it 3-1 and marches back to the finals.