Magnolia Hotshots coach Chito Victolero sat in front of the press with a look of relief after his team downed the San Miguel Beermen in Game 1 of the Philippine Cup finals. Magnolia had jumped out to a 1-0 Philippine Cup finals lead over the Beermen last year as well. It is up to Victolero and the Hotshots to change the narrative that they are only good for one win against San Miguel in the finals.
Now leading the series 2-1, the Hotshots are halfway to the title and in uncharted territory. They got here by refusing to change the way they play.
The name of the game for the Hotshots is their intelligent and disciplined defense. In their two wins in the finals, they have held San Miguel to 88 points per contest, while surrendering 108 points in their only loss. The Beemen shot 32 percent from the field, a far cry from their usual percentage. Trying to get into a shootout with the champs is a recipe for disaster, and the Hotshots discovered they don't want to get into that kind of situation.
"I think that's where we get ourselves in trouble," Rafi Reavis said. "Just understanding who we are and what we're good at, and that's defense. As long as we stick to our roots and what we're good at, I think we'll be fine. "
Magnolia's defense has been geared to stop one man: June Mar Fajardo. How have the Hotshots been able to negate Fajardo's presence in the paint? It's no secret, really. They just force Fajardo to make decisions on both sides of the court on almost every possession.
It starts with Ian Sangalang and Reavis. On offense, the two were putting Fajardo in pick-and-roll situations all game long in Game 3, and the threat of their midrange jumper drew Fajardo beyond his comfort zone which is in the paint. Magnolia doesn't have post-up players who Fajardo needs to defend inside, but both Reavis and Sangalang have the ability to stretch the floor, which has forced the SMB star to make a decision about whether to challenge hard or stay home.
Against the TNT KaTropa in the quarterfinals and Phoenix Pulse Fuel Masters in the semifinals, Fajardo didn't really need to do much on defense. Both teams were guard and forward-heavy squads, so Fajardo only became the last line of defense.
Reavis and Sangalang are different. If you close out too hard on Sangalang, he will put the ball on the floor and blow by Fajardo. If Lee and Sangalang run the pick-and-roll, Sangalang has the ability to step outside and get midrange buckets.
All of this has created offense for the Hotshots. They're hunting for Fajardo on screens on almost every possession. Sangalang's clutch basket at the 1:34 mark of Game 3 came because he and Lee were playing 2-on-1 on the perimeter against Fajardo, a place he would rather stay away from. As a result, he was too late recovering on Sangalang, who made the jumper and put the game away for good.
On the defensive end, Magnolia has loaded up on Fajardo on every possession, keeping all five guys on Fajardo when he gets the ball in the post. They've thrown single coverage, double teams, and even triple teams at him. Once again, it's all about making Fajardo guess when and from where the help will come. Even then, he has still been able to destroy the Hotshots' defense, only because he's that good.
But the effect of Fajardo's uncertainty trickles down to his teammates. Phoenix Pulse was unable to hang with San Miguel's offense because they were so worried about Fajardo dominating. The Hotshots have players who can quickly recover, scrambling everywhere on the court and switching everything, when Fajardo gets help.
For San Miguel, the key in Game 4 will be how they space the floor for Fajardo. The way that the Hotshots position themselves to help, Fajardo can't find a direct line for a kick-out pass that can trigger San Miguel's attack. The other Beermen can't afford to be complacent and watch Fajardo go to work all alone.
After each of their four championships in the Philippine Cup, Beermen coach Leo Austria has said this familiar refrain: The strength of San Miguel is June Mar, but the strength of June Mar is San Miguel. It rings true in this series: Fajardo alone can't defeat a confident, battle-tested team like the Magnolia Hotshots. He will need his teammates to help put him in a position to dominate.
If they can't figure out Magnolia's defense, their reign in the Philippine Cup will be coming to an end soon.