Star players will always have drawing power when it comes to sports like basketball, but it remains first and foremost a team sport.

The Magnolia Hotshots and the TNT Tropang Giga each have their own collection of stars, but both teams needed a team effort and not so much individual display to clinch their respective victories earlier today in the opening games of the 2021 Honda PBA Philippine Cup semifinals.

How they won their games today certainly gives them a blueprint for taking the series, but the Meralco Bolts and the San Miguel Beermen aren’t slouches themselves.

The Magnolia Hotshots got major contributions from their best players, but the Meralco Bolts’ disciplined defense could pose problems going forward

The Hotshots are at their best when their top players are in peak form. Paul Lee knocked down two 3-pointers to get things started for Magnolia and the rest of the team followed suit. Calvin Abueva and Ian Sangalang were relentless in the paint, while Mark Barroca orchestrated the offense to a T.

When the dust settled, they turned a 64-61 third-quarter deficit into an 88-79 victory over the Bolts to take a 1-0 series lead.

Meralco did all it could to contain the Hotshots attack through three quarters, but they could not capitalize on a cold second half from Lee, who scored four points after a 13-point first half, and a foul-plagued Abeuva, who nevertheless continued to be a thorn to the side of the Bolts.

Magnolia normally runs their offense through Lee and rightly so, and that approach will open things up for them and could potentially hand them this series. When the former UE Red Warrior wasn’t looking for his shot, he drew the defense in to create opportunities for the likes of Sangalang (who led all scorers with 18 points) and Barroca (who had a team-high six assists) through passes and some pseudo-screens. This will be a welcome development for the Hotshots moving forward as Meralco will now likely make defensive adjustments following what they’ve seen in Game 1.


The Bolts’ defensive chops allowed them to negate any Magnolia run through three quarters and when combined with an offensive explosion from either Mac Belo or Allein Maliksi can be problematic for the Hotshots. Forcing turnovers and baiting Magnolia into ill-advised shots has had its merits, but it won’t be enough for Meralco if they let the Hotshots outrebound them 47-39. That and the 24 free throw attempts the Bolts gave up to Magnolia handed the Hotshots extra opportunities and the win.

Offensively, Meralco will need more from Belo and Maliksi, two of their top scorers. Both combined for 14 points and made six of their 15 shot attempts, and this is quite a let down considering the size advantage they have over most, if not all, of Magnolia’s perimeter players. That Belo attempted only four free throw attempts and missed three only added to the team’s woes. The Bolts could look at the likes of Bong Quinto (14 points and a game-high 10 assists) and Anjo Caram (11 points) for options, but Belo and Maliksi at their best are tough to stop.

Physicality will be a theme for this series as elbows were thrown and nearly everyone hit the floor at one point in the game for a myriad of reasons. Things were chippy even after the final buzzer sounded as there was a commotion near the Hotshots bench.

Foul trouble could then become a wild card, with Best Player of the Conference contender Calvin Abueva having three fouls with 1:22 left in the first quarter. It didn’t, however, prevent him from being aggressive as he continued to fly over the court. He may have picked up his fifth foul with 1:55 left in the third quarter but managed to stay foul-free the rest of the way. He may have not fouled out in the game, but Meralco will look to bait him into more fouls in the next few games.


The San Miguel Beermen will have to figure out the riddle that is the TNT Tropang Giga’s defense

The long layoff the Tropang Giga earned by quickly advancing past the quarterfinals initially looked to pose problems for them as the Beermen raced to an 8-2 lead early in the first quarter. In the end, they only needed a few minutes to settle in before relying on their defense to hold on for an 89-88 victory.

RR Pogoy led TNT with 23 points, but it was the efforts of Jayson Castro off the bench that proved crucial in the win. His 16 points more than atoned for Mikey Williams’ off night, and his six assists were among those that did the most damage to SMB’s cause. Once he got his scoring going, The Blur understood that drawing the defense would be much easier and in turn he found open teammates for open jumpshots and easy layups. Williams also had six assists to make up for his scoring struggles, and he too followed Castro’s lead in utilizing the dribble-drive offense to find openings for others.

Being up 1-0 against San Miguel, or any other team for that matter, is not a guarantee (see the Beeracle). However, the defense the Tropang Giga played with throughout the game is something SMB will have to figure out.

TNT’s effective help defense in the post led to multiple turnovers that the Tropang Giga converted to points on the other end. The Beermen will have to work on communicating these in order for their post players to effectively counter this moving forward. Fajardo fell victim to this trap, but eventually found a way to score despite the pressure from inside the paint.

Both teams didn’t go so deep into their benches as TNT went with a 10-man rotation, while SMB played four bench players, with only Terrence Romeo, CJ Perez, and Mo Tautuaa going for more than 15 minutes. San Miguel didn’t field the likes of Von Pessumal and Paul Zamar, both of whom would have been able to provide shooting and thus more spacing inside.

Only SMB head coach Leo Austria and his staff would know why both did not see action today, but he could be figuring out how to manage the minutes of his finally complete lineup. After losing Romeo and Alex Cabagnot to varying injuries, both are finally in the lineup and while it is a luxury to have this much talent, he unfortunately does not have the luxury of time to experiment.

Execution at the team level, when put together with talent and work ethic, can lead to wins and championships. All the teams left in the field didn’t make it this far without some of that, but proper execution is a continuous process, one that develops with each passing game. How the four teams work on this could spell the difference between a title in hand or another empty season.