Tale of the Tape: Defense is the name of the game

The final four of the 2016 Oppo Commissioner’s Cup is set and one end of the bracket will feature the Alaska Aces against the Meralco Bolts.

The Bolts are entering this series as the #1 seed and they would love to enter the finals for the first time in their franchise history.

As for Alaska, their heartbreaking loss during the Philippine Cup finals probably still hurts and the best way to erase that memory is to win a championship ASAP. That starts with winning this series and moving on to the finals to face either San Miguel Beer or Rain Or Shine.

During the eliminations, Meralco won 107-101 versus Alaska. It that game, Shane Edwards was still Alaska’s import.

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So, here’s a series preview of their best-of-5 match-up that starts on Monday.

Offense

The Aces finished in the top 5 in team scoring during the eliminations while the Bolts were near the bottom at 11th place. The Aces have one of the best players in the league right now, Calvin “the Beast” Abueva, whose averaging career-highs in a lot of offensive categories: points, FG%, FT%, 3P%, threes made and assists. Yup, Abueva has somewhat increased his shooting range up to the three-point line during the season.

During the elims, Abueva made 1.4 threes per game at an impressive success rate of 42.9%, thus, it’s not a surprise that Abueva is the leading candidate for Best Player of the Conference. However, the Aces are working with a handicap due to the loss of Vic Manuel to injury. The Aces don’t expect him to play in the series. Another thing that could hurt Alaska is the decision to go with Rob Dozier as their import this late in the conference.

Over at the Bolts’ camp, scoring can be a problem. They don’t have a go-to-guy who can takeover games. Well, maybe Jimmy Alapag can provide that role if healthy and playing but even their import, Arinze Onuaku, is not a dominant force offensively (20.5 ppg).

Still, the Bolts can boast of balanced scoring that is headed by Jared Dillinger, Cliff Hodge and Chris Newsome (their leading local scorer). The Bolts were very impressed at the performances of their perimeter guys that they were willing to let Gary David go without the use of a trade.

In addition, Meralco regularly receives contributions from role players like Hugnatan, Amer and Faundo. A big question though, can their role players consistently deliver the goods? The same question is not that much of a problem for Alaska because a lot of their guys have played in crucial games before. They have veterans like Menk, Dela Cruz and Hontiveros who definitely know what to do and what not to do during the playoffs. Overall, the advantage offensively goes to Alaska but only slightly due to Vic Manuel’s injury.

Defense

The Bolts don’t score a lot because their strength focuses on their team defense. During the elims, Meralco was #1 in at least three defensive categories: points allowed, opponent’s threes made and three-point percentage. Moreover, the Bolts were 3rd in total rebounds while also being 2nd in defensive rebounds and 3rd in offensive rebounds. The Bolts are an amazing rebounding team because leading them is Onuaku who is the #1 rebounder left among active imports. Furthermore, Meralco has excellent defenders across all their positions and these guys can also contribute offensively which means they can play a lot of minutes.

Regarding the Aces, they are a decent defensive team, ranked 6th in least points allowed while giving up less than 100 points per game. Alaska is also slightly better than Meralco when it comes to opponent’s FG percentage. However, Alaska is only 11th in rebounding so expect the Bolts to dominate the Aces in the paint and in second chance points. Again, the absence of Vic Manuel will hurt the Aces, despite Calvin Abueva doing his thing on both ends of the court. Meralco has more defenders who are versatile and able to defend multiple positions like Hodge, Dillinger, Newsome and Hugnatan. Finally, Meralco’s import can be a bully down in the paint, thus, the Bolts have the advantage defensively.

Bench Depth

Alaska has shown that they can overcome injuries. JVee Casio, their primary point guard, missed games (he is still hurt) but instead of struggling, Alaska thrived with RJ Jazul, Ping Exciminiano and Chris Banchero as their PGs. It is even debatable that the Aces are better off without Casio because the others have filled in quite nicely.

Now, the Aces have another problem since Vic Manuel is unlikely to play in this series. Of course, Abueva will always play his heart out and hustle like there’s no tomorrow but Alaska needs more from their other frontline players.

During their series vs TNT, veterans like Eric Menk, Tony Dela Cruz and Sonny Thoss contributed more than usual to compensate for Manuel. On the other hand, the Bolts aren’t equipped to fight off injuries to their main guys. Meralco typically plays 8 (or sometimes 9) guys deep but the Bolts don’t have a bench that is as deep compared to the Aces. They’re rather thin at the PF/C positions, so an injury or foul trouble to their import, Arinze Onuaku, instantly cripples their chances of winning. Aside from potential big men problems, the Bolts also need to deal with the lack of playoffs experience from most of their core players (except Alapag) while Alaska is overflowing with battle-tested players. If Alaska’s big men continue to play superbly, then the Bolts are in deep trouble. Therefore, Alaska ends up having a deeper bench despite of their injuries.

Coaching

Both American coaches are excellent bench tacticians and they display similar emotions during the course of a game. They mostly appear cool and collected plus when looking at their faces and/or expressions, it would be difficult to tell if their team is winning or losing.

Coach Norman Black of Meralco has done a wonderful job navigating the Bolts to the semis after having a disastrous Philippine Cup. He has given rookie Chris Newsome a lot of confidence and trust; and the rookie has remarkably delivered. Besides from Newsome, Hodge and Dillinger have improved this season, especially this conference and part of the credit has to go to Black because he utilized their talents more efficiently.

Meanwhile, the same things can be said about Coach Alex Compton of Alaska. The Aces could have folded and delivered rotten outings due to their bad showing last conference but they endured and look where they are now. Furthermore, injuries to their original import (Dozier) and primary players have not prevented them from reaching the semis because Coach Alex has been a positive and impactful driving force for them.

While Black and Compton have similarities, the biggest differences between them are hardware and coaching experience. Coach Black has multiple championships and has been a head coach since 1985 while Coach Compton is still working on his first title as a head coach, a career that began last 2014. Finally, the coaching advantage goes to Norman Black of Meralco.

Prediction

The Bolts got the #1 seed due to their defense, rebounding and good health. Their import has developed chemistry with the team while Alaska is trying to make things work with Dozier as a late replacement. In addition, Alaska is going through some injury problems. Meralco appears to be more consistent and stable than Alaska, hence, the Bolts should win the series in 5 physical games. – By Rolly Mendoza

Follow this writer on Twitter: @rollzter

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