Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, his dream of winning the first championship of his professional career well within reach, expressed confidence that TNT can finish the job and dislodge Barangay Ginebra from his throne.
“It comes down to execution—how you execute defensively and how you execute offensively—I feel comfortable in our ability to do that,” Hollis-Jefferson said as the Tropang Giga look to claim the Philippine Basketball Association Governors’ Cup crown on Friday.
The do-it-all import’s faith in his team is not misplaced, going by the way TNT has played in the last two games, including Wednesday’s Game 5 when they capitalized on the departure of Justin Brownlee to pull off a second-half comeback and sixteen has 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven affair.
TNT shoots for the franchise’s ninth title in Game 6 of the series at 5:45 pm at Smart Araneta Coliseum, where the Tropang Giga look to end Ginebra’s reign of the season-ending conference that has held strong the past two editions.
The big issue hounding Ginebra is the condition of Brownlee, who never played in the last 24 minutes of Game 5 after being weakened by food poisoning on the day of the contest.
It’s probably a question of how, not if, can Brownlee perform with Ginebra on the brink of a rare Finals defeat. The six-time champion was later sent to the hospital as Ginebra coach Tim Cone described his illness as “very severe.”
“We need him. I mean, this is not a secret,” said Christian Standhardinger.
Minus Brownlee, the Gin Kings appeared too spent as they left the Big Dome floor following a disappointing setback that put them in a scenario where they have to win twice to deny the Tropang Giga’s bid to fulfill their destiny.
“We got to be better with more poise down the stretch. Now it’s a twice-to-beat,” said Cone, who has a history of coming back from similar deficits in the past—but not with his current team in a championship series.
TNT coach Jojo Lastimosa can win his first title at the expense of his former Alaska mentor, but he’s bracing for more surprises that Cone may pull out of his hat.
WATCH: Coach Jojo Lastimosa after TNT’s win over Ginebra.
Best Player of the Game Rondae Hollis-Jefferson begged off from the post-game media scrum due to headache. | @MeloFuertesINQ pic.twitter.com/v0H4SQ44xM
— INQUIRER Sports (@INQUIRERSports) April 19, 2023
“I think I know him really well and his coaching style, but he has some secrets that I don’t know,” Lastimosa said. “He might have picked up some plays here and there, so I don’t know.
“It would be an honor to beat him, if I can, in this series. But a lot of things can happen, closeout games are really, really hard.”
Ginebra’s experience in championship play and the crowd advantage will make TNT’s quest to hand a San Miguel Corp. team just its second loss in the last 17 Finals doubly hard.
“I think [our Game 5] win was a breath of fresh air,” said Mikey Williams, the Tropang Giga’s most consistent performer. “But they’re never-say-die over there, so you can’t take them lightly. “They’re gonna come on Friday ready to battle. It’s not gonna be easy.”
Most of the attention will be on Hollis-Jefferson, whose impact has significantly increased in Games 4 and 5.
But TNT’s success has hinged on being the deeper team thus far, with Williams, Calvin Oftana and Poy Erram stepping up and the likes of Jayson Castro, Kelly Williams and Glenn Khobuntin producing quality minutes. The Tropang Giga have flaunted their depth even with the absence of starters RR Pogoy and Justin Chua.
Ginebra, on the other hand, has been using a shorter rotation with Japeth Aguilar still playing limited minutes since his recovery from injury and LA Tenorio sidelined due to his ongoing bout with colon cancer.
While Jeremiah Gray continued to struggle, Ginebra finally got something from Nards Pinto, who almost led Ginebra back in the fourth with his play on both ends.
Jamie Malonzo and Scottie Thompson had their share of challenges in Game 5 and are looking to rebound during the most critical phase of Ginebra’s campaign.
And TNT is anticipating all those comeback plans.
“It’s all about taking that step to put your mind in advanced mode, like, alright, they might adjust to this, they might do this a little different, this was working so they might stay with that. Just thinking about those little things,” said Hollis-Jefferson.
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