Magnolia has won six of its last eight games to enter the 2019 PBA Philippine Cup playoffs as the sixth seed and earn the right to face long-time rival Barangay Ginebra in a best-of-three quarterfinal series beginning Saturday night.
But while the Hotshots are on a hot streak following a 0-3 start in the 2019 season, coach Chito Victolero is convinced his team remains the series underdog.
"We're still the underdogs because we know man for man, especially at frontcourt, we're shorter. So I've told the boys that we do have to double our efforts in other aspects of the game in order to beat Ginebra," Victolero said on the eve of Game 1 of their quarterfinal series versus the Kings.
Foremost on Victolero's mind is how Magnolia can neutralize Ginebra's tall frontcourt of Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar.
The 6-foot-11 Slaughter logged 15.45 points, 8.91 rebounds and 1.91 assists during the elimination phase, while the athletic Aguilar normed 16.5 points, 7.55 boards, 1.73 dimes and 1.36 blocks.
What's scary is that both Ginebra bigs shot over 50 percent from the field, getting majority of their baskets within 10 feet.
The 32-year-old Aguilar averages at least one dunk per contest with veteran playmaker LA Tenorio facilitating the Ginebra power forward's aerial forays.
Add to that Scottie Thompson's near double-double averages of 11.91 points and 9.36 rebounds, along with 4.27 assists as well as 38 percent shooting from the three-point arc.
But again, Victolero isn't dwelling on Ginebra's advantages, saying he is more focused on what they have achieved together entering the playoffs.
"I think the biggest factor for winning six of our last eight games was that our players finally got their conditioning back," he noted.
Magnolia had a grueling stretch of playing seven games in 20 days, which the 2018 PBA Coach of the Year felt was helpful for them.
"That long stretch of playing seven games in 20 days was a blessing. And it was a good thing we were able to recover from a bad start because we got our timing back," stressed the Magnolia coach.
Given the brief series, Ginebra coach Tim Cone expects everyone to be locked in as the Kings try to take Game 1 and grab the quick upperhand.
And the American coach knows Magnolia's combo guard Paul Lee will be at the forefront, especially since the "Lethal Weapon" is coming off a fiery 6-of-9 three-point shooting in the Hotshots' 102-74 rout of NLEX last Wednesday.
"We know Paul Lee and company are going to be ready so we need to be at our best," said Cone. "More than it being the Manila Clasico, it's the first game of a short series, therefore that makes it crucial for both teams."
Ginebra beat Magnolia, 97-93, in their only encounter during the elimination round.
Both teams had a memorable face off in the 2018 Governors' Cup that saw Magnolia beat Ginebra in the semifinals. Magnolia reached the Finals and went on to win its first title in the post-Tim Cone era by beating Alaska.
Other than Lee, Cone's charges will also have focus their defense on veterans Mark Barroca, Ian Sangalang and Jio Jalalon.
Barroca, a six-time PBA champion, has been the team's defensive anchor. The 5-foot-10 guard out of Far Eastern U averages 13.09 points, 3.09 rebounds, 4.18 assists and 1.64 steals per contest.
The 6-foot-7 Sangalang, on the other hand, submits 15.73 points, 9.64 rebounds, 2.73 assists and 1.64 blocks.
Meanwhile, Jalalon could be an added headache for Ginebra given his speed, ability to slash to the basket and his playmaking. The former Arellano Chief guard normed 11.0 points, 5.09 rebounds and 4.09 assists.