The short PBA schedule, largely due to the quarantine restrictions the Philippine government laid down to combat COVID-19, has made every game even more valuable. As such, wins and losses have had more implications than in past pre-COVID seasons.

Yesterday’s 2021 Honda PBA Philippine Cup playoff games pitted the top two seeds against the two lower seeds, with the former having a twice-to-beat advantage over the other.

The results could not have been more contrasting as the second-seeded Meralco Bolts suffered a close loss to the NLEX Road Warriors in the first game. Meanwhile, the TNT Tropang Giga, who had the best record in the elimination round, wasted no time in taking down the defending champions, Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, and inched closer to that elusive All-Filipino title.

Below are some takeaways from yesterday’s games:

The NLEX Road Warriors took what the Meralco Bolts gave them: a close game and a shot at victory

Playoff basketball is fun when the games are close and the outcome hangs in the balance. For some teams, they’d rather have the outcome decided early on and bank on the fact that winning will always keep their fan base satisfied.

The game between the Bolts and the Road Warriors was a close affair all throughout as both teams never held leads larger than nine points. Experience usually wins out in these kinds of contests, especially when spontaneous opportunities present themselves. It was then quite surprising that a rookie took advantage and provided the finishing touches in this game.

Rookie Calvin Oftana made the read in the penultimate play of the game by managing to slip past the Meralco defense and make the go-ahead layup with 6.1 seconds left. It turned what looked like a win for the Bolts with one stop into an extra game where all bets are off.

Anthony Semerad led all scorers with 23 points, but it was Oftana, who finished with 12 points, that made the most important basket. Don Trollano also scored 12 points, while Jericho Cruz came off the bench to finish with 10. Meralco actually had more bench points (28-21) compared to NLEX, but late-game execution marred a very much winnable game for them.

For the Bolts, there’s no other way to say it but they let this one slip away. They led the league in turnovers in the elimination round and it continued in the postseason as they committed 20 to the Road Warriors’ 15. Keeping those in check will be crucial as Game 1 showed how NLEX can maximize the extra opportunities given to them. Moreover, Meralco will have to work on defending against the three-pointer, as the Road Warriors made three more despite shooting the same percentage (25 percent) as the Bolts. In a one-point game, one more miss could have made the difference.

NLEX took away Meralco’s twice-to-beat advantage and now the key to completing the upset lies in forcing more turnovers. Getting to the line will also be another area they can work on as the Bolts also took 15 free throws to their nine. The likes of Oftana, Cruz and Kevin Alas attempted a combined three free throw attempts, a figure that is quite low for players with the ability to drive to the basket.


The TNT Tropang Giga understood the assignment in eliminating Barangay Ginebra San Miguel

Long story short, the Tropang Giga played like the top seed they were throughout the preliminaries against Ginebra.

Sure, Barangay Ginebra led for much of the first half, but TNT used a 16-2 run in the second quarter to build a 39-33 halftime lead they would never relinquish. In what was a rematch of last year’s All-Filipino finals, the depth that the Tropang Giga had at multiple positions was something Ginebra could not overcome, especially after losing Japeth Aguilar and Scottie Thompson to injury and COVID-19 health and safety protocols, respectively. Making matters worse was that they lost Aljon Mariano to a right ankle sprain in the first half.

Six TNT players scored at least seven points, with RR Pogoy leading the way with 16 points and four steals. Troy Rosario scored 15 points, while Best Player of the Conference contender Mikey Williams had an all-around game of 11 points, seven rebounds, and five assists.

Christian Stanhardinger had 17 points and 19 rebounds, but only him and Stanley Pringle were in double figures for Barangay Ginebra. Both were also a combined 10-of-29 from the field and without Aguilar and Thompson, TNT’s defense had a much easier time shutting down Ginebra in the second half even as Standhardinger continued to grind it out.

Recovery and rest will certainly be in TNT’s favor now that they have earned themselves a few days off with their win over Barangay Ginebra. They’ve been able to weather offensive individual struggles, but the challenge will be preparing for either the San Miguel Beermen or NorthPort Batang Pier, who at this point in the season are more stacked than the current iteration of Ginebra. In fact, the Beermen can throw Marcio Lassiter, Chris Ross, and even CJ Perez at Williams, who only had to worry about a laboring Jared Dillinger.

With their season over, Barangay Ginebra will rue over lost opportunities due to injury, but alas they are part of the game. Instead, the decision will be to re-examine their depth, and the uncertainties with whether or not the season will conclude after the Philippine Cup will definitely factor into their plans. With an aging roster, getting younger will be a priority.

Nike had a global campaign where athletes were urged to “take every advantage”. After earning themselves the crucial twice-to-beat advantage, both the TNT Tropang Giga and the Meralco Bolts made the most out of it in their own way. The Tropang Giga used the one-win incentive to earn themselves extra days off, while the Bolts averted a crisis with a second chance at advancing.

Only time will tell if these will pay off down the road.