While the Magnolia Hotshots may have entered their 2023-2024 PBA Commissioner’s Cup semifinal matchup against the Phoenix Fuel Masters as the favorites, there was another label that stuck with the Hotshots: Big Brother.
The Fuel Masters are no stranger to the postseason per se, as they’ve made quite a number of trips to the quarterfinals. However, Phoenix only advanced to the semifinals twice in their nearly decade-long existence prior to this series against the Hotshots. Interestingly, one of those semifinal trips came at the expense of Magnolia.
That being said, this series had a little extra meaning for the Hotshots.
For Game 1, the Fuel Masters went the unconventional route by coming out with a lineup of Raul Soyud, Chris Lalata, RR Garcia, Raffy Verano, and Ricci Rivero before subbing in his usual starting lineup a few minutes later. Phoenix head coach Jamike Jarin later called it an opportunity to give his younger players experience, but it may have thrown the Fuel Masters off their usual habits.
Nonetheless, it looked like the tactic may have paid off early on as Phoenix and Magnolia traded baskets and the share of the lead, with the Fuel Masters eventually holding a 55-46 lead with 7:31 left in the third quarter. Staring at a deficit that was threatening to balloon into an insurmountable one, the Hotshots doubled down on their power game, eventually chipping at the lead. In the end, Tyler Bey, (23 points, 10 rebounds, and two assists, and a steal) had the final say in what turned out to be quite the series opener.
It can be said that Magnolia outlasted Phoenix in this contest, and that can very well be the case if they don’t make adjustments moving forward. The approach to a series opener is obviously different from the approach to the rest of the series, especially with the in-series adjustments and the developments that could potentially have great implications to the matchup.
The Hotshots’ inside game has served them well and even against a Fuel Master frontcourt of Johnathan Williams III, Jason Perkins, and Soyud, they hold the advantage in the paint. Complementing that with better perimeter play will be critical as it may be harder to win games when Paul Lee and Jio Jalalon were misfiring. Magnolia didn’t have to rely on their 3-point shooting for much of this conference, but when it’s been on point, they’ve been able to create the much-needed separation to fend off opponents.
The Phoenix Fuel Masters put up a solid effort in Game 1 of the 2023-2024 PBA Commissioner’s Cup, but the Magnolia Hotshots’ experience won out in the end. Given how close things were, it may be hard for the Hotshots to replicate this performance, but they don’t need to reinvent the wheel; doubling down on their strengths will be a great place to build on.