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Magnolia coach Chito Victolero says team's defense key to title run

The Magnolia Hotshots continue to put a lot of premium on a defense-oriented approach that has defined the success of the Hotshots in recent PBA seasons.

"We're still trying to focus on improving our team defense," head coach Chito Victolero said in a mix of English and Filipino on Thursday. "That's our culture and our system. That's our bread and butter."

A huge chunk of the team's practice sessions in Lipa, Batangas have the Hotshots focusing on their body of work on that end of the floor since the 45-year-old coach understands how much defense has dictated their chances of a shooting for a title in the past three years.

Victolero, in particular, cited Magnolia's run in the 2018 Governors' Cup, where the Santa Maria, Bulacan native won his first-ever title as a coach.

No figures from the import-laden conference are publicly available, but in soon-to-be-publicized numbers from Stats by Ryan Alba on DribbleMedia.com, a stingy Hotshots unit allowed just 97.05 points per 100 possessions in 57 games for the entire 2017-18 season -- a defensive rating that topped all PBA teams by a good margin, and a good indicator of how much their entire season's worth of work culminated in a title at the end of the year.

That trend followed in the 2019 Philippine Cup, where Magnolia stood in the way of San Miguel in the seven-game finals series before the Beermen clinched the last of five straight All-Filipino titles. Per RealGM, Magnolia during that conference allowed just 95.5 points per 100 possessions in 28 games, good for second league-wide throughout that stretch.

"If we are No. 1 in defense, we have a good chance of winning a title, just like what happened in the last two or three seasons. We had the No. 1 defense in the league when we won the 2018 Governors' Cup, and when we played San Miguel for the All-Filipino title, we also had a great defense. That's the key for our team," Victolero explained. "We need to strengthen and improve our defense to get back on top. That's our identity."

Even with the retirement of three-time Defensive Player of the Year Marc Pingris, Victolero says Magnolia still has the pieces to continue building a top-tier defense, with offseason acquisition Calvin Abueva and energetic big man Jackson Corpuz taking on larger roles in the frontcourt.

"It's hard to fill the shoes of Pingris, not only for his talent but also because of his maturity and his leadership. But with the addition of Calvin and Jack Corpuz improving very well, I think they can contribute to what we lost," he remarked. "In terms of leadership, Paul (Lee), Mark (Barroca) and our team captain Rafi Reavis can step up to be leaders of the team. It's a collaborative effort from people embracing their roles to fill what we lost."

Abueva, in particular, has been setting the tone for the Hotshots in practices as the team continues to get their legs back.

"Calvin has been helping us a lot in practice. He competes with everyone," the coach shared. "And the kids have improved their conditioning. I think we're now at 75 to 80 percent."

Victolero said Magnolia's 15-man lineup is now complete after signing Season 46 Rookie Draft rookies Jerrick Ahanmisi, Ronnie de Leon and Loren Brill, as well as 2019 third-round selection Alvin Capobres. All they have to do now is to just continue putting in the work while the team and the rest of the league waits for the official opening of the 2021 season.

"We're hoping in the last two to three weeks of our preparation before the opening, we're targeting to reach 90 to 95 percent of our condition," he said. "These remaining few weeks of preparation will be perfect for the things we need to continue working before the opening."