Ginebra struggles for consistency

SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson

The competition is past the halfway mark in the single round-robin eliminations of the PBA Philippine Cup with no team out of contention for the playoffs where only the top eight of 12 teams will advance. The last four finishers will be struck out and the first two will enjoy a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinals.

For each team, the goal isn’t just to qualify for the playoffs. It’s also to avoid landing No. 7 or No. 8 because that would mean a handicap of a twice-to-win disadvantage. If the eliminations ended today, here’s how the playoff pairings will look like – No. 1 San Miguel Beer (6-1) vs No. 8 NLEX (3-4), No. 2 Magnolia (6-2) vs No. 7 Barangay Ginebra (4-4), No. 3 Alaska (6-2) vs No. 6 TNT (4-4) and No. 4 Rain Or Shine (4-3) vs No. 5 Phoenix (4-4). The No. 3 vs No. 6 and No. 4 vs No. 5 ties will be best-of-three affairs. Out of the running will be GlobalPort, Meralco, Blackwater and Kia.

Phoenix beat Ginebra, 87-82 and TNT, 74-72 so in a three-way tie, the Fuel Masters gain the edge. Ginebra and TNT face off at the Smart Araneta Coliseum on Sunday so the outcome will be critical. At the moment, TNT is one up on Ginebra due to a higher plus-minus quotient. TNT is +15 and Ginebra, +9. Magnolia and Alaska are tied with identical 6-2 records but the Hotshots defeated the Aces, 108-95 in their matchup. Obviously, the standings are far from settled as six teams have still four games to play and the other six, three. The hottest squad is Alaska with six straight wins after a 0-2 start.

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Meanwhile, crowd darling Ginebra is still battling for consistency. Coach Tim Cone’s troops got off to a sizzling 2-0 start then lost three in a row before breaking out to deal San Miguel its only loss so far, 100-96. Ginebra, however, failed to capitalize on momentum and lost an 81-78 decision to NLEX. Last Wednesday, Ginebra was back on track with a 103-77 demolition of Kia. Ginebra has now won two of its last three outings. Two of Ginebra’s four losses came when Greg Slaughter was sidelined with a hamstring strain. 

Controlling tempo is crucial in Ginebra’s scheme of things because Cone relies on a short rotation. Before Wednesday’sgame, Ginebra had four players averaging at least 32 minutes each, seven at least 20 and 10 at least 10. That means Ginebra is dependent on a tight nucleus of Slaughter, Japeth Aguilar, L. A. Tenorio and Scottie Thompson who’re averaging from 32.8 to 38.6 minutes. The four players are averaging a combined 60.2 points or 67 percent of the team’s output. To generate maximum mileage from his core, Ginebra must dictate pace and stretch the clock. It can’t play an up-and-down game with a limited rotation. Besides, seven Ginebra players are at least 30 years old so Cone has to make sure older legs are preserved for the homestretch.

It’s been a struggle for Cone to survive without Joe De Vance, his anchor from the triangle years at Alaska to the modified system at Purefoods and now to the unpredictable style of Ginebra. De Vance underwent foot surgery in the offseason and has yet to suit up this conference. But he’s back in the gym and raring to come back. Cone isn’t rushing JDV. He’s far too valuable to return to the court prematurely. Cone won’t ever forget what happened to Slaughter in the 2015-16 Governors Cup where he sat out the first eight games, came back to suffer an ACL injury in his return then missed the next 52 contests up to the Commissioner’s Cup the next season. De Vance said he’s a possibility to play on Sunday.

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To shore up his cast, Cone went to the free agent ranks and found John Wilson and Prince Caperal, the latest additions to the Barangay. He’s also given more minutes to Raymond Aguilar and finally unleashed rookie Jett Manuel last Wednesday. Manuel made his PBA debut against Kia and delivered eight points. While Slaughter nursed his hamstring, Raymond took advantage of the vacuum to pump in 16 points in the win over San Miguel. Now, he’s found himself in Cone’s regular rotation. In the fourth quarter of the Kia rout, Cone tested his second and third groups to prepare the shock troopers for any eventuality in the future.

What’s holding Ginebra back is an alarming tendency to commit errors. The team is No. 1 in turnovers even as the Barangay uses a deliberate, methodical approach, reflected in its last place in fastbreak points. That’s because of chemistry issues with JDV out of commission, Sol Mercado skipping the first three games to heal from a several ankle sprain and Slaughter sitting out three outings. Cone’s system requires precision in execution and that’s something a team works on during long hours of practice.

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