Barangay Ginebra came into the PBA Philippine Cup bubble with a couple of standouts either out of shape or coming off health problems. They somehow got off to a great start, ran into a bad patch and a controversial loss to a sister team, before correcting its course to nail the No. 1 spot.
TNT, meanwhile, was a team eager to rev its engine after assembling a roster whose starting unit was composed of national team standouts after trading for defensive big man Poy Erram and re-signing two-way guard Ray Parks Jr. The Tropang Giga were all primed to flex their new roster even before the league even imagined staging its centerpiece tournament in a self-contained environment.
Exactly two months after their arrival in Clark Freeport, the two teams plunge to action in Game 1 of a best-of-seven duel which unfurls on Sunday, 6 p.m. at Angeles University Foundation gym powered by Smart 5G, hoping to claim a crown that comes with its own piece of history, one that will forever be a part of league lore.
Barangay Ginebra and TNT had long been tabbed as favorites to battle for the crown. They will have extra motivation to outdo each other. Whoever emerges the victor in this All-Filipino duel will not only be the team that takes over San Miguel Beer’s dynastic reign in the Philippine Cup but will also gain the distinction as the squad that won what is hands-down the most demanding and taxing PBA tournament ever staged.
“(Playing) TNT is going to be really hard,” Ginebra coach Tim Cone said in the postgame presser shortly after a pulsating 83-80 Game 5 semifinal win over Meralco last Friday.
“I do think that they’re the favorites, and we’ll go in as slight underdogs as opposed to this [semifinal] series where we’re a bit favored.”
Cone’s view stems from the fact that his charges are going up against a vaunted roster that features a national team-caliber starting unit.
Parks Jr., Erram, Roger Pogoy, Troy Rosario, and Jayson Castro lead a TNT side that hopes to deliver the franchise’s first All-Filipino crown in eight years and its first championship since 2015.
“Coming into this bubble, I think that they showed [why they are favorites] from the very beginning. And I don’t think anybody thinks anything less of them now,” Cone added.
The Kings actually had to work on their cohesion and chemistry as the conference went on. Japeth Aguilar and LA Tenorio, two integral cogs in their previous championship runs, came into the bubble late for different reasons. And even when they arrived, Aguilar was out of shape while Tenorio had just undergone an appendectomy.
TNT, for its, part, already knew what was it like playing in a self-contained environment after training in Laguna.
But coach Bong Ravena, in the traditional “one-downmanship” that usually precedes Finals tussles, offered an argument against his team being the favorite: “Ginebra beat us in the eliminations.”
“That team is so (experienced),” he told reporters here on the eve of the clash that many feel will go the distance, if only going by the fact that the two needed Game 5 deciders to finish off their semifinal foes.
“That’s a veteran team with a seasoned coach,” Ravena added.
Which is also exactly why he and active consultant, Mark Dickel feel that despite a pricey pool of talent, TNT does not have the luxury to relax even the slightest bit.
“[J]ust like what coach Mark said, we really have to want (this),” he said. “We need to start strong.”
Ginebra rolled past TNT, 85-79, in their only previous meeting on Nov. 6 in what turned out to be a scintillating display of contrasting styles.
The Gin Kings limited the Tropang Giga, one of the league’s highest-scoring teams then, to just 79 points.
Stanley Pringle, to whom Cone credits much of the team’s success inside the bubble, also helped the crowd darlings’ cause that night, hitting key baskets down the stretch to will the Kings past an error-filled showing and the victory that gave them the leadership of the tournament.
Sunday’s contest could very well be a showcase between the two team’s crafty guards in Pringle and Parks, who are both in the running as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“We’re really hoping (for Ray’s sustained play),” said Ravena. “He has been the anchor of this team ever since the bubble started.”
“But at the same time, we also need everyone to be free of injuries, especially this being a series,” he added.
“They have been playing great basketball,” Cone said of their foes, who were also coming out of a grind-out series against upstart Phoenix. The Kings, meanwhile, advanced after Scottie Thompson drained a game-winning triple with time winding down.