In a chippy, intense and emotional affair, the defending champions TNT Tropang Giga are headed back to the Philippine Cup Finals after outlasting the Magnolia Hotshots, 87-74, Sunday in Game 6 of their best-of-seven semifinal series.
The Tropang Giga took the series 4-2 and now await the winner of the San Miguel Beermen-Meralco Bolts series, which is headed to a Game 7 on Wednesday. Three thoughts on the game:
Intensity was the name of the game
This game lasted two hours and 24 minutes, longer than the usual running time of a PBA game. A total of 58 fouls were called. The two teams combined to shoot 59 free throws. Both coaches were whistled for technical fouls. To cap it off, Poy Erram was ejected early in the fourth period for a flagrant foul penalty 2 after he bloodied Ian Sangalang's forehead with a whack from behind.
"I think it was coach Erik Spoelstra who said, 'Unless you've been here you'll never know what it's like,'" TNT coach Chot Reyes said. "Unless you've been in this cauldron, you really don't know. The intensity, it's just off the charts. And the intensity lends to passionate and physical play. But we're careful to draw the line. I always tell my players, if you make a foul, this is the playoffs. There are playoff fouls. Nothing dirty, nothing meant to hurt.
In the end, though, the TNT gave Magnolia a dose of their own defensive medicine.
"We didn't really talk too much about our offense because we scored almost a hundred points the last game and still we lost," Reyes said. "So clearly our problem in the last game was defense. So that's all we talked about yesterday in practice, in the pregame. Magnolia was just outworking us. And I'd like to say that we had some brilliant coaching moves or adjustments. We didn't. It was just the players resolving not to allow the players of the other team to outwork them. And I think the best manifestation of effort is defense. How well you defend against a super offensive powerhouse like Magnolia. For us to be able to hold them under 80 was huge."
Chot and Blur: a partnership that's stood the test of time
Jayson Castro has played his entire PBA career with the TNT franchise after being drafted third overall in the 2008 rookie draft. The man who drafted him was Reyes. Together, the two have won five PBA championships for the franchise. Now, they look to add one more.
"As a player, 14 years going on 15 years on this team, that's my mentality, to win another championship and add to my legacy," Castro said in Tagalog. "I want to set an example for the new players. Another chance, hopefully we can get it.
"If you look at my career, since my rookie year, he (Reyes) was the one who drafted me. His trust in me is big so I need to repay that. We know each other very well. Sometimes you don't notice it but we get into arguments. Our relationship goes beyond coach and player. I consider him my mentor."
Reyes agrees that his relationship with Castro transcends the coach-player dynamic.
"Some things we cannot say here publicly. I was gone from this game, the PBA, for nine years. And the one thing that I missed most was the relationship with the players. The relationship I built with Jayson, to the point that I can yell at him and he'll take it. And he can yell back at me and I can take it.
"For example, his man scores on him a lot, he'll own up to it and man up to it. And that's a great example for the rest of the team. If you see Jayson Castro doing that, then it's contagious. And my big belief is that positive leadership is contagious. That's the kind of relationship that we have built over the years."
Waiting in the wings and what lies ahead
TNT now have the luxury of a five-day break before Game 1 of the finals. But they'll have to wait until Wednesday night to find out their opponent.
"[The break is] very big for us," Reyes said. "As you can see we've got a lot of players who are banged up. So that extra break is gonna come in really, really handy. Not only to rest but to prepare, to really watch. I haven't really taken a look at the other series. I caught glimpses here and there. And now at least we can take a look."
But whether it's San Miguel or Meralco, the Tropang Giga will face a unique challenge.
"It's going to test our versatility because each team presents a different problem," Reyes explained. "We all know the problem San Miguel presents with June Mar, with their size and their overall talent. Meralco presents a different kind of problem with their scrappiness and the way they play defense. And they have great size in the wing position. They don't post their big men up, they post their wing men up. So that's a completely different approach, a completely different problem for us. You know us, we like to play small. I think the fact that it's 3-3 shows how even it is. Whoever it is, we're really going to be tested."
History also beckons for Reyes, who will be coaching in his 17th PBA finals. A title will allow him to move past the legendary Baby Dalupan for most Philippine Cup championships won. Right now, both are tied at first place with six each.
"Honestly I'm not thinking about it," Reyes said. "I was surprised when I found out about it last year. It's cool, it's a great achievement, but it's something that we will need to win the four games first before we get there. Maybe I'll think about it much later if we get the chance. Right now, I'm really not thinking about it. And I'm sure Coach Baby will agree, all we can do as coaches is set the table and the conditions for our players. In the end, it's the players."