Strong starts are what largely helped the TNT Tropang Giga get to the finals of 2021 Honda PBA Philippine Cup and it’s what got them a head start in the series.

The Tropang Giga earned an 88-70 win over the Magnolia Hotshots after starting the game on a 7-0 run that eventually became a 20-2 lead at one point in the first quarter. Eventually, the lead would balloon to as many as 32 points in the third. The Hotshots had to bleed for every basket, to the point that Magnolia reached 50 points by the 7:48 mark of the fourth quarter on a Rome Dela Rosa layup. By then, both teams had already begun emptying their benches with their sights set on the next game.

Mikey Williams could not have had a better start to this series after being hounded by SMB’s Chris Ross for much of the semifinals. Missing only one of his six 3-point attempts, the presumptive Rookie of the Year scored a game-high 21 points and hauled down 10 rebounds, leading an offense that scored 36 points in the paint and 26 points off turnovers.

54 of the Hotshots’ 70 points came from their bench players, with Paul Lee and Calvin Abueva leading the way with 12 and 11 points, respectively. Neither made more than 28 percent of their shot attempts. Jackson Corpuz also finished with 12 points off the bench, but he got most of his points with the outcome having already been decided.

Game 2 will likely be another game of the benches, as Abueva had a double-double by halftime and Lee began the game on the bench. Lineup alterations could change that, especially given how fast things swung into TNT’s favor. The Tropang Giga could also be a bit short-handed as Kelly Williams had to be stretchered off the court postgame due to severe back spasms. Having Williams start allows JP Erram to come off the bench, giving TNT a deep and imposing lineup.

TNT head coach Chot Reyes has had experience coaching the likes of Abueva, Lee, and Jio Jalalon during their Gilas stints and allowing them to get their points without it causing significant damage came from understanding tendencies that came out playing for the national team. On the other hand, having a team full of past national team players helps too and with Kelly Williams’ status up in the air, he will have to go deeper into his bench to replace the out-of-box-score contributions of the 2008 PBA MVP. That he was able to give the likes of Dave Marcelo and Glenn Khobuntin more minutes should give them confidence.

Of course, it goes without saying that Magnolia has A LOT to work on. Perhaps one of the few silver linings was that the Hotshots’ main men got more rest in what was a blowout, preserving their energy for Game 2. However, Magnolia was the more well-rested team, as they finished off the Meralco Bolts in six games.

The Hotshots attempted 44 free throws, and although they only made 26 of those attempts, it was still nearly three times more than the 15 that the Tropang Giga attempted. Any team getting to the line that much should win or at worst, lose a close game. However, given the disparity and the margin with which they lost, it stands out as a missed opportunity especially against a dangerous team like TNT.

Having Abueva, Lee, Jalalon, Ian Sangalang, and Mark Barroca should make it easy to draw fouls and keep the Tropang Giga defense on its toes. Unlike the San Miguel Beermen, Magnolia’s offense is more perimeter oriented, with the big men creating most of their offense off offensive rebounds and other 50-50 ball opportunities. With all the effort required to do so, fouls will likely come in volumes.

Basketball is a game of attrition and no situation is it more evident than in the finals. The TNT Tropang Giga drew first blood and did so in dominant fashion and now the onus is now on the Magnolia Hotshots to respond before it becomes too little, too late.