Paul Lee's clutch four-point play that eventually set the stage for a 103-100 comeback win by Magnolia over NLEX on Wednesday was a story that wouldn't have been possible if not for a collaborative defensive effort that began from the guards.
"In the first half, we had difficulty in terms of timing, condition, our rhythm offensively and especially defensively," head coach Chito Victolero said in Filipino Thursday during the team's media availability. "But luckily in the second half we got our timing back through our pressure defense. That's what we talked about even before the bubble in past seasons. That was where we drew our strength."
Down by as many as 22 in the third, the Hotshots authored a furious comeback behind effective full-court pressuring from its pesky backcourt to overcome the biggest deficit the franchise has faced in 15 years, or since Purefoods surged back from 29 down to beat Alaska 86-84 in the 2005-06 Fiesta Conference.
Lee (two steals) and fellow guards Jio Jalalon (five) and Mark Barroca (four) all combined to pile up 11 of the team's 14 swipes. NLEX couldn't find its way around the suffocating defense, committing more turnovers (25) than assists (18), with Kiefer Ravena and Jericho Cruz combining for 12 of those errors.
"I always use two guards and I sometimes even run with three. So it's up to my guards, how they defend and how they match up against bigger opponents. Through the years, we went to the finals and we won a championship because of my guards," said Victolero. "That's my system, and it's proven -- we were the no. 1 defensive team last year. That's our goal also in the bubble."
Behind the guards that kept an already sturdy defense in sync on most nights, Magnolia allowed the lowest points per game in the 2019-20 season, giving up only 89.5 in 53 games. The Hotshots also held teams to league-lows of 39.7 percent from the field, 44.3 percent on twos and 29.3 percent on threes.
These numbers may perhaps be a validation of Victolero's system heavily reliant on guards -- something that admittedly didn't sit well at first with Lee when he first arrived in 2016.
The franchise traded longtime star James Yap for Lee but drafted Jalalon less than a month after his arrival. That posed a bit of a logjam, as the two joined Mark Barroca and Justin Melton in the backcourt.
"When I came in and when we got Jio, at first it seemed questionable for me and for other players. But Coach Chito has a purpose -- he wants us to play a fast-paced game. And his style also is focused on defense. I think that's the right fit for us," he said. "And for the question of whether or not we have the best backcourt, we'll let our stats from the way we play defense do the talking."
The guards' ability to push the pace wasn't just limited to one side of the floor against the Road Warriors, as Lee, Jalalon, Barroca and Chris Banchero - the latest high-caliber guard to join the team after a trade sent him to Magnolia late last year -- were the only players to score in double-figures for the Hotshots.
Banchero (30 minutes off the bench) and Jalalon (20) scored 19 each to lead the team, Lee finished with 18, while Barroca wound up with 13 in a start. That's 69 of Magnolia's 103 points.
"Our lack of height is compensated by their energy, aggressiveness," said Victolero.
Overhauling a 22-point deficit through unrelenting efforts both on offense and defense only happened thanks to the guards' supreme conditioning, Victolero noted.
"If they weren't in good condition, I don't think we would have pulled off a comeback," he said.
"My teammates didn't slack off during the pandemic," added Lee. "You would have been embarrassed if you headed to practice out of shape and you saw Mark Barroca, Jio Jalalon and Chris Banchero in really good condition. You could really see the competition starts within the team."
Lee, for his part, weighed at 215 pounds mid-May --- two months after the season was suspended -- and shed as much as 27 pounds before returning to his current playing weight of about 191 to 195.
"I really didn't do anything for two months, I ate everything I wanted to eat. After that, I noticed I got heavier," he laughed. "But I just disciplined myself, started a diet and worked out at the same time. I tried working out and eating everything I wanted at the same time, but nothing changed after three weeks. When I started dieting and working out at the same time, that's when I felt changes."
Magnolia is hoping to build back on an impressive win and show how much better it can get when the team battles a winless Alaska side Saturday, Oct. 17, at 6:45 p.m. The Aces just lost an important piece in Kevin Racal to an ACL injury he suffered last Wednesday.
"We hope and pray that K-Racs (Racal) recovers immediately," said Victolero. "I already told them that Alaska will come out very, very strong because at 0-2, there's a sense of urgency to fight back, play hard. That's on us how we'll prepare and take that challenge and look at it as a whole."