Not a lot of things have gone TNT's way ever since the franchise won its last championship four years ago.
After winning the title against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in the 2015 PBA Commissioner's Cup, the KaTropa missed the playoffs the next conference, then suffered six quarterfinals exits, two semifinals exits and one finals loss.
A hard-fought win over the Alaska Aces on Wednesday for its first semis appearance since 2017 was a step in the right direction. It presented the KaTropa a real chance at snapping its current title drought.
"It's been a while, but the hunger is still there," head coach Bong Ravena said on July 19. "TNT is about winning championships. Our expectations are to win."
To get there, the team will once again lean on the three-pointer -- a weapon they've used for most of its title runs during TNT's dominance early in the decade. Using the long ball is not a new phenomenon, but the way that it has changed the KaTropa's shot selection this conference could spell the difference between success and failure at the end of their Commissioner's Cup campaign.
Adjustments to modernized schemes have increased the quality and rate of TNT's attempts from downtown. After making just 28.3% (third to the last) of their 37.1 three-point attempts in the Philippine Cup, the KaTropa improved this conference, hitting a league-best 35.3% of their triples in 11 elimination round games.
"That's (the) scheme. I'd like to shoot more of those. Analytically, the way the game is going is that it spreads the court," team consultant Mark Dickel told ESPN5.com.
That trend is reflected in TNT's shot selection. Prior to the quarterfinals, the KaTropa made three more triples (14.0 per game) and have attempted five more (39.6 per game) than the next team. TNT, however, was dead last in field goals (23.3) and attempts (47.0) inside the arc.
"I don't wanna shoot twos. I wanna shoot layups and I wanna shoot threes. I wanna shoot as many of them as possible. We have a goal that we're trying to shoot 50 threes a game. In order to do that, you gotta shoot when you're open and not be worried about the consequences," explained Dickel.
At this point, 53 three-point attempts per game is still a pipe dream for TNT, considering that only two teams have breached that mark this season -- NLEX with 53 attempts on March 17 and Rain or Shine with 50 on Saturday against Blackwater. Even in the NBA, where the three-point revolution is exhibited more, only the Houston Rockets have come close to reaching that number with a league-high 45.4 attempts per game last season.
But it's not an impossible feat for Dickel, especially if TNT really gets comfortable letting it fly from that distance.
"On offense we wanna play as simply as possible, get a quick advantage and take the first good shot available. All the players are capable of shooting, especially the guys we have on our team. The hard adjustment for myself and the other coaches is getting them comfortable to take what previously may not have been a good shot for them before, but now I think is a great shot. It's just getting everyone aware about what shots we're trying to take," he said.
Of course, their success from long range won't rely on shot attempts alone. To make it work, they'll also have to step it up on the other end of the floor.
"Our offense (and) the plays are there, but we have to really make stops. The offense will just follow. We have to make our defense consistent, start on the little things like boxing out, not allowing backdoor cuts," Ravena said.
"We have guys that are willing to try hard. We have a system on defense that really doesn't matter if you're a so-called good defender or not, if you do your job, you're gonna be a good defender for us," Dickel added. "It's just an adjustment thing, it's just making sure everyone knows their roles and sticks to them and when we do that, we're hard to score against. And through that we get a lot of fast break opportunities and a lot of wide-open threes. Our defense really sets the table for our offense."
Roger Pogoy and Troy Rosario are prime examples. Pogoy is a huge part of their transition offense because of his 2.9 steals per contest, which makes up a huge chunk of TNT's 9.1 swipes overall.
"It's our defensive system. It really fits me. When the ball is on the strong side, I'm able to roam on the weak side. That's why we have a lot more steals this conference," Pogoy said.
Rosario, on the other hand, is a more subtle illustration of their defensive acumen. While he hasn't shot the ball particularly well in the first 11 games (25% on threes), he's been adept at guarding opposing imports.
"What I have been really thrilled with him is defensively, he's made huge strides for us. Guarding the opponents' import and getting the job done on him, sticking to our rules. He's improved a great deal. It's just sometimes, statistically, that's all people look at on offense. But at the other end he's been great," Dickel said.
"Terrence Jones occupies the four and I play the five, which means I focus more on guarding the import and making sure that I get the offensive boards," Rosario said in Filipino. "As long as we're winning, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. If I'm shooting 25 percent from three, I don't mind because we're winning. I was shooting 40 percent last conference but we didn't win anything back then."
Having Jones is a massive boost to what TNT wants to achieve on both sides of the court. A huge part of the team's success from outside can be attributed to the former NBA big, who excels as a playmaker with 7.7 assists per game.
"I was most excited about that even before he came because he's a point guard. That's basically what he is. You put the ball in his hands and he makes great decisions. It just so happens that he's 6'10. He's a tough cover. He's multi-skilled, really good defensively, smart, really sticks to the rules, (and) a good guy, so I kinda knew what we were getting," raved Dickel.
"All we have to do is shoot and we don't have to do much else with him around. Basketball is simpler for us. He's a big help. He can create, pass to us, rebound, play defense. On all aspects, he's there," Pogoy said of Jones.
Dickel added that accommodating everyone's needs was made easier because of the import's unselfishness.
"My job, our job as coaches is to how to plug the other guys in so they still feel involved and play a good game. That's always the issue when you have a player that's as talented as he is, to make sure that everyone else feels valued, has their role, does their work and gets in the game and is confident, too," Dickel said.
"His leadership and how he communicates with everybody have been totally underestimated, like the fact that he's actually a humble, good guy, (and) gets along with everybody. That's actually underrated 'cause usually when you're a player of his ability, you're not as patient with the other players as maybe as you need to be."
That's not to say that it's been a smooth-sailing ride this conference for TNT.
Before the playoffs started, the primary concerns of the coaching staff were if the team "can come in ready to play" and adjust on the fly. Those concerns doomed them in Game 1 against Alaska. The Aces took TNT out of its comfort zone to obliterate them by 36 and nearly put an end to what is expected to be a deep playoff run.
After shooting just 6-for-35 in the blowout loss, the KaTropa regained their identity in Game 2. They resorted to what has been their bread and butter all conference long, burying Alaska with threes in the third quarter behind the trio of Rosario, Don Trollano, and Jayson Castro -- who all combined to shoot a perfect 7-of-7 from deep during that stretch.
"We started to get comfortable with how they were playing us. They're well-coached, organized. It's really difficult when we're getting certain shots the whole conference, so now they've changed and certain guys were put in harder spots. Credit to Alaska, they did a great job. But when the third quarter came around, I thought we slowed down and started to show a little bit of poise, and then the game became easier and the shots that we were presented with, we started to make," Dickel said after the series-ending win on Wednesday.
Waiting in the semifinals will be defending champion Barangay Ginebra, a deadlier opponent that has all the tools to shackle TNT's heavy artillery.
"It's a big challenge, obviously. Traditionally, they've done really really well," Dickel said. "Haven't really thought too far ahead as to the problems that Ginebra will present. Obviously adding Stanley to that team presents more issues since the last time we played them. I think the key for us is how we adjust to them being a different team from the last time we played them."
Nonetheless, this is still the best shot at a rebirth for TNT. With the right system and the right import in place, this is the most opportune time for them to regain the glory that was once theirs.
"We got more than enough to win. We just gotta lock in and keep doing our job. I think the key for us we just don't waste opportunities that we got right now. We've got a great opportunity this conference to do something. I'm thrilled to win, to keep moving on, to give ourselves a chance to win this whole thing," said Dickel.
"There is no extra pressure on us because we expect to win anyhow," Ravena added. "We believe in our players totally. We feel we have good enough players to win. We considered last conference a failure. If we don't win this conference, we will consider this the same."