Aside from the obvious fact that the upcoming Manila Clasico matchup in the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup will be played without fans, some apparent changes and omissions across the board will be hard to ignore when Barangay Ginebra and Magnolia take the floor on Sunday.
In terms of absences, the "Bubble Clasico" will be played without some key figures that have shaped the rivalry over the last decade. Ginebra has continued to trudge on without Greg Slaughter, while the Hotshots are working their way around the loss of the retired PJ Simon and the injured Marc Pingris.
Magnolia big man Ian Sangalang said the team (1-3) still feels Pingris' void on the court, but stressed that the veteran still contributes to the team despite being sidelined.
"It's a bit difficult not having him around," he said in Filipino on Sports Page on Tuesday. "He's a huge presence for us not just inside the court because outside the court, he guides us too, especially during games when he teaches us things that we need to do.
"But he's still able to help us. When we need him, we can call him anytime. That's how he is, even when we were back in Manila. Whether you had a bad game or a good game, he'd always call you and text you to advise you or push and assure you that your game will come. He won't pull you down, he'll always help to lift you up."
The Gin Kings (3-0), on the other hand, aren't really reeling from Slaughter's absence and have learned to adapt without him, said Joe Devance.
"I guess it's new to everybody, but for us, it's not about us not having Greg. We moved on already, you know what I mean? We've already adapted," he said. "We've moved on. I wish Greg the best. But that's just behind us already."
Some players from both squads have emerged from the shadows to fill the shoes of those who aren't present. For Ginebra, that's Prince Caperal -- the third guy behind Japeth Aguilar and Greg Slaughter who has blossomed into something of an offensive force for the Gin Kings.
"I'll give Prince a lot of credit. People don't know how Prince really is. I think it's his time to really show what he possesses. His powers. You know what I mean?" Devance noted. "It was only a matter of time until Coach Tim (Cone) really gave him an opportunity to blossom. It's not about us not having Greg or anything like that."
Even after cooling down in the team's last outing against Meralco, Caperal still ranks second in points per game for Ginebra with 14.6 points per game. He is also shooting a red-hot 63 percent from the field, including a ridiculous 69 percent on 4.3 attempts per game from downtown.
"Earlier one of our assistant coaches told me, 'You're playing well, for sure they'll have game plans against you.' I just have to practice the counters. They teach it to me, anyway. I just have to apply it in-game as long as I do it within the system. I hope I'm able to execute that," opened Caperal.
"They're (the point guards) all threats, so I get open," he continued. "That's probably what happened in the first two games, they couldn't prepare for me hitting my shots ... Kuya Joe and and kuya LA (Tenorio) give me a lot of tips that I'm able to execute in games. Credit goes to them and their leadership."
Magnolia hopes to find answers in offseason acquisitions Chris Banchero and Jackson Corpuz, both who will play their first Manila Clasico game on Oct. 25.
Corpuz, traded from the Dyip franchise back in December, is already raring to go after spending most of his career watching the rivalry from afar.
"I used to just watch them, even when I was playing for another team. There were about three times when our team used to be scheduled on the same day as Manila Clasico, so I often stayed behind instead of going straight home just to watch," Corpuz shared. "Now that I'm here, it's even more exciting."
But Magnolia and Ginebra are still expected to lean on their strengths. The Hotshots' biggest threats come from the guards, where Banchero, Paul Lee, Mark Barroca and Jio Jalalon anchor a top-notch defense primed to give any backcourt its share of fits every night.
Does the Manila Clasico still excite Reavis?
Veteran Rafi Reavis has been playing in Manila Clasico for several years now.
"We're pretty prepared for those 'attack dogs'. They actually call me the 'attack dog trainer,'" Devance joked before turning serious. "We're prepared for their pressure and we understand and we know how good the pressure is from the guards. Usually what we do is we just have someone else bring it up.
"We have Stan (Stanley Pringle). Stan is one of the best, if not the best, ball-handler in the league. I think we've always had trouble with guard pressure and stuff like that, but I think we will be able to handle it a little bit better now."
The Gin Kings, meanwhile, still have last conference's Finals MVP in Japeth Aguilar, who is slowly rounding into form. Aguilar was limited in his first two games but broke out against the Bolts Sunday, scoring 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting in 22 minutes off the bench.
"Japeth's also fast, so I have to always be in contact with him on the court. I can't lose him. Every time he plays, I know he goes hard and he always goes for the offensive rebounds. But we still need that total team effort so we can match up well with Ginebra," said Sangalang.
Tenorio can certainly do damage, too, though he's admittedly still further along in terms of conditioning compared to Aguilar.
"I've been trying to participate in full practices for two days now. So far it's been OK, but there are still limited movements on my end. But the most difficult thing is getting game shape. I didn't do anything for two weeks because of my surgery," he said.
"Slowly but surely. Hopefully in the next few games I get my timing back. Even if I only play limited minutes, it's good because at least I can get my timing and my feel for the court. I'm really way behind everyone else. But I'm trying to catch up."
The veterans from both teams insist that no team has the upper hand when it comes to depth and conditioning.
Said Rafi Reavis: "Without Greg, I think their core is still intact. They still have a great group of veterans on their team and so do we. I don't think any team has any advantage as far as depth on the bench (is concerned)," he said.
"It's all up to how the coaches want to use the players. How they'll see it fit, I guess we'll find out. But as for now, I think both teams are pretty depth-strong. I don't really see any particular advantage that any team has with the other. We'll just have to wait to find out."
"Because of the rivalry, I don't think there's an advantage whether they're in better game shape than us. It will really boil down to who really wants it more," added Tenorio.
Reavis also thinks playing in the bubble without the usual thousands of boisterous fans screaming from the bleachers isn't really any different from what they're normally accustomed to.
"Even with fans, we play within the bubble on the court. You're trained to just try to block out whatever noise is outside of the court. My primary focus is what's going on in the game. I don't think it will be a difference in our style of play," he said.
But in a rivalry that has stretched for decades, both squads know they'll have to generate their own energy to gain even a bit of an advantage.
"If you're not on the floor and you can't help your teammates, you have to also make noise so they get energized," said Sangalang. "We're the only ones who can help each other. Who else can help us? Our families are not here."