What initially was a tumultuous start under new head coach Jeff Cariaso became an awakening of sorts for the Alaska Aces, which bucked a horror start to the 2019 PBA Governors' Cup to eventually book an unlikely ticket to the quarterfinals.
It took five winless games, but an Aces team that allowed opponents to rain points on them in the first half of the conference finally found their stride in the last six, where they went 5-1 and identified what type of team they wanted to be on defense entering the playoffs.
Cariaso simply summed up the most important change Alaska made during that crucial stretch last Wednesday, where it capped off a four-game winning streak and gained automatic entry to the first found by beating the league-leading NLEX Road Warriors in emphatic fashion: "If you look at the numbers, we're defending better. I would say our defensive percentage against teams, total field goal percentage, was a lot better. We defended better these last few games."
The numbers could attest to that. In their 0-5 start, the Aces allowed 103.8 points per game, which wouldn't nearly become as big of a problem it proved to be if Alaska's putrid offense (34 percent field-goal shooting, 29.3 percent on 3s) during that time offset their defensive woes. Aces opponents also hit on 43.4 percent in all those losses.
In its 5-1 finish, Alaska put up more resistance on defense by holding foes to only 95.5 points per contest, which would rank fourth league-wide if it was a mark it maintained for all 11 games. Aces opponents also shot generally worse (40.9 percent) even if the team allowed a slight uptick on 3s (31.3 percent from 30.7 percent in the first five matches).
"Another thing we talked about was controlling the rebounds. If you noticed the first five games, we badly got killed off the rebounds. Giving them extra second chance points was really hurting us," Cariaso added.
"Killed" would seem like an overstatement considering the rebounding tally in those losses didn't really represent a massive difference -- Alaska allowed 55 rebounds per game while hauling only 51.2 on its own end -- but more often than not, that led to more second-chance opportunities for its counterparts (15.5 in the 0-5 start, 11.0 per game the rest of the way).
Alaska cracked down on it after that terrible start, dominating the rebounding battle every single time by grabbing 54.6 boards to overshadow a measly 43.6 mark by their opponents in that department.
"This is just a small proof that when coaches say defense really wins championships, we really mean that down to the last detail," remarked Cariaso.
Shooting better always helps, of course, as the Aces found the net on 44.6 percent of its shots in the final six matches.
"For us, just being able to help each other, lessening our breakdowns, lessening our turnovers, not allowing easy points. Turnovers, fast-break points, those are two things that we talked about a lot. Not giving up easy points and controlling the rebounds," he said. "The way we're practicing, the way we're engaged, the way we were focused, it was as if it was playoff time for us. I want to give all the credit to the boys, everyone, every day at practice challenging themselves, challenging each other, practicing at a high level and then showcasing it in the game."
But bouncing back from a dismal start is only one half of the story. Whether Alaska can maintain its peppy play in a twice-to-win disadvantage against the second-seeded Meralco Bolts has yet to be seen, though Cariaso admitted they'll have to do "something special" in order to advance.
"Obviously we all know about the start. One thing we said during that time was it's not how you start, it's how you finish. We're happy with the way we finished the eliminations, but we're not content yet. We know we have a big feat against the no. 2 team," he said.
Meralco coach Norman Black is wary of Alaska's capability to pull off an upset and quickly identified some threats that his wards would have to neutralize for a quick knockout.
"They've been playing really well as of late. I think they've gotten very comfortable with the system now and in a sense, they're taking early shots and attacking the rim at every opportunity," he told ESPN5.com. "Our defense has to be on point, especially in the post against their big men -- Abu Tratter, Franko House and Vic Manuel. Tratter's been playing well lately, and Manuel's picked up his game in the last couple of games. They've also got good shooters. (Maverick) Ahanmisi, JVee Casio... those guys are definitely a concern also."
Black added that he wants the Bolts to play at the same level they've been playing all conference long in order to not give Alaska even a small window of opportunity for a shocker.
"Watching the film, we were pretty good defensively last game. We can be a little bit better offensively, though, with some more extra passing," he said. "We just have to come out and stay sharp, play the type of basketball we've been playing all conference long that brought us to the no. 2 seed."
"We have to remember that we're not good enough to take anybody for granted and that Alaska can beat us on any given night," Black added. "We just have to refresh how we've been playing -- moving and sharing the basketball, getting a lot of second attempts. Again, it's just about getting back to what made us the second seed this conference."
Alaska will try to force a knockout match in its quarterfinals matchup against the Bolts on Sunday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.