Top-seeded PBA teams that walk into a twice-to-beat advantage in the playoffs don't normally have a lot to worry about after breezing through the eliminations. But in the case of the NLEX Road Warriors, there's valid cause for some concern heading into the 2019 Governors' Cup quarterfinals.
After dispatching foes left and right in a five-game winning streak that would eventually lead to the team securing the top seed entering the first round, NLEX finds itself looking for ways to shake off bad habits and sluggish play after falling to a two-game slide in its final elimination round assignments.
"I don't know what happened, either. We're just playing badly. The last two games were our worst games. It's kind of worrying to me because we should be peaking at this point, but our play is declining. I think that's a reason to worry," coach Yeng Guiao admitted Wednesday after his side dropped a 106-90 decision to the Alaska Aces.
Much of NLEX's success this conference has stemmed from judicious execution on offense, where the Road Warriors are well within the top three in a lot of departments: points (106.7, third), fast-break points (15.1, third), points off turnovers (15.1, third), assists (26.1, second) and bench points (49.5, first). A modern approach to the 3-ball has also yielded a lot of positive results -- the team is first in 3s made (13.3) and attempted (36.3) per game, and it is hitting at a high rate (36.3 percent, third).
But their last two losses have uncovered some troubling patterns. Guiao pointed out earlier in the conference how NLEX assures itself a better chance of winning when it moves the ball better for high quality looks, but it might be something that the team hasn't been able to do lately.
Eight wins: 46.0 percent on field goals, 40.2 percent on 3s (14.7 made), 29.8 assists on 13.2 turnovers
Last two losses: 39.8 percent on field goals, 26.8 percent on 3s (9.0 made), 18.5 assists on 17.5 turnovers
In all of their wins, the Road Warriors never dipped fewer than 10 treys and 20 assists. The bench has also been lackluster in losses (32.0 points) compared to during their victories. (54.1).
The good news for NLEX is that Guiao and the rest of his coaching staff probably know all these already.
"I think it's a problem that can be fixed in practice. So that sense of urgency, that mentality of just being relentless every game should be restored, brought back to our team. That's my mission, my job is to make them feel that urgency and translate that into sustained energy," he said.
Even with the spirited coach on top of the situation, a matchup against the eighth-seeded NorthPort is still admittedly a tall order even with a twice-to-beat advantage in hand. After all, the Batang Pier handed NLEX the first of its two losses in a decisive 102-94 win on November 13.
"I guess it's also good for us to have lost the first game. We know we have a twice-to-beat advantage, we know that false sense of confidence that we probably had the last time is going to be erased because they beat us. We know we have a hard game because they already know they can beat us, so we will need all the intensity and preparation to beat NorthPort," noted Guiao.
"Of course, even if you have a twice-to-beat advantage, your mentality is you only have one chance. When the game comes, we should only see it as one chance. The next game you face them, the momentum, the odds, the confidence, they're totally different. So the first game should be our best chance of winning it."
Solving the problems posed by import Michael Qualls (36 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks), along with frontcourt stars Christian Standhardinger (23 points, 19 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal) and Sean Anthony (19 points, 7 boards, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 2 steals) should be on top of NLEX's to-do list, said Guiao.
"If they play the same way, we'll have big problems. We must at least take 1 out of the 3 out of the equation. That's going to be our game plan. We will look at our videos, the films, and see if we can device a defensive scheme against those 3 guys," he shared.
Meanwhile for NorthPort, it's all about starting to build a winning culture -- whether or not it can take down its fancied opponent or not.
"It's not only about reaching the playoffs," said Standhardinger after a Batang Pier win last Nov. 17 against Barangay Ginebra helped them avoid falling out of the playoff picture completely. "It's not only about reaching the finals, winning the championship. It's about creating and getting the habits of a winning culture here in NorthPort. And I think we're on a great way to [getting] there."
"If it's not enough this conference, I think it will be enough the next conference. And we just gotta go all out," he added.
That's not something the Batang Pier could have considered after a 2-4 start this conference, but Standhardinger's (23 points on 52.3 percent shooting, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.0 steal) arrival changed all that.
"It was a fight. It was not easy for us. We joined the team late, very very late," the center said about Qualls and him. "We had to adjust ... But then I think now we've made the right adjustments.
"We watched film, we kept grinding, we kept doubting, we kept tweaking our games," he added.
Doubt about making the playoffs was not really present for NorthPort even after a rough start, but Standhardinger said that's something that the team should welcome in what should be a highly-challenging encounter against the Road Warriors.
"The normal answer is no, we always knew what we got and we never doubted ourselves," he shared. "I feel like, we... or at least me, I always doubt.
"I think doubting in a way is good. Because you doubt and keep trying. And then you doubt and search for the winning way. I hope we do a lot of doubting because if we play like this, even on an off night for me offensively, then we're on the right track."