The View from the Armchair: Finals Game 1
The Green Archers failed to get a running start and lost to the Blue Eagles, 61-69 last Sunday in the first game of the UAAP championship playoffs. After matching Ateneo for most of the first half, the Archers allowed Ateneo to grab the initiative at the start of the 2nd half, which Blue Eagles used to build a double digit lead that the Archers could not surmount in time. Ateneo center Rabeh Al-Hussaini was the biggest (literally!) thorn in the side of the Archers, as he singlehandedly scored almost half of Ateneo’s points with 31 on an assortment of one-on-one drives, putbacks, and medium range jumpers.
The first half defense was good and forced numerous Ateneo turnovers, except for the defensive lapse at the end of the 2nd quarter which allowed Ateneo to build its largest lead of the game (7 points) at halftime. In the second half, Ateneo managed to score enough points to hold off the repeated rallies of the Archers.
Ateneo obviously prepared for the standard Archer sets to free up shooters on the perimeter, particularly at the corners, so most of the long shots were around the top of the key. JV had to fight for his shots. Rico blocked several times, tried to take his man off the dribble but was stopped, and committed 5 turnovers. Looks like the Ateneo defensive plan on JV was to bump him whenever he went baseline, and he lost the ball on what the refs must have called ‘incidental’ contact.
How we lost
Looking at the scoresheets, it’s clear that most of the scoring damage was done by Rabeh Al-Hussaini, supported by Jai Reyes and Ryan Buenafe. These 3 players scored 55 out of Ateneo’s 69 points. How did they get their points? Rabeh frequently went one-on-one against Maui and Ferdinand, backing them up or faking a shot than taking a couple of dribbles before laying in a point blank shot. When he was well defended, Rabeh would pop a medium range jumper that usually found the mark. When the Archers’ interior defense doubled on a penetrator, the kick out passes would find Reyes or Buenafe, who connected on their perimeter shots. The Blue Eagles have obviously trained hard to take advantage of the double team, and their kick out plays are almost automatic. The Archer defense will have to force Rabeh out of the paint and make him beat us as a jump shooter.
Extensive scouting of our defense has allowed the Ateneo guards to recognize our zone defense, and they have set patterns to find the gaps through dribble penetrations and quick cuts. When we go man-to-man, they isolate players like Rabeh and Buenafe, and when the secondary defense cheats and swings over to show a double team, they execute cuts from the weak side or foul line, or set up screens for their outside shooters.
The Ateneo defense, on the other hand, is very familiar with our staggered screens for our shooters, and frequently veer away from the blockers towards the expected pass reception area. We were able to take advantage of this preparation by scoring on some decoy and pick-and-roll plays, but these weren’t run too often. Our guards could and did penetrate, but either their shots didn’t fall or their passes to open teammates under the goal were fumbled away. The Ateneo players were obviously under instructions to play physical under the goal, and any Archer penetrators were given hard bumps to throw them off their stride. JV lost the ball to the endline a couple of times because of this tactic.
With the outside set plays not working because of the low shooting percentage, our players had to resort to drives against the well-established interior defense of Ateneo, and Baclao managed to block 7 attempts. Although Rico struggled against the tight defensive net thrown at him, he still managed 17 points and 16 rebounds. However, he should be more prudent when attempting drives from the perimeter, because the secondary Ateneo defense is sure to be ready for him by the time he’s taken off. Perhaps he should practice the short floaters or hooks a la Cardona instead of trying to take it all the way with a layup.
After the Archers managed to take a 3 point lead behind JV’s individual brilliance, Ateneo uncorked a 10-0 burst to retake the lead for good and ended the 2nd quarter with a 7point lead. This margin helped build their confidence, and their 3rd quarter opening salvo behind Al-Hussaini set the tone for the remainder of the game. All the Archers could do was play catch up, and although they did threaten several times, the shooting woes of the Archer shooters prevented them from coming closer tha 6 points the rest of the way.
What must the Archers do?
Start strong come tipoff – the Archers must dictate the pace, take the early lead, and force Ateneo to play catch up. This will affect their substitution patterns and make them react instead of dictating the pace. Hold the line and treat each defensive play as if it will be the game winner. If Ateneo gets an early lead or is able to stay close, their confidence might build up and it may be difficult to shake them later in the game. The solid start is critical, because Ateneo plays well when they’re in the lead. Their ability to surmount a sizeable deficit has not been really tested this season. There’s no better tme to try it than on Thursday.
Shake the confidence of the Blue Eagles – they need to take the Blue Eagles out of their comfort zone. They’re very strong when they play within the game plan of Black. The coaches will need to figure out how to disrupt the rhythm of Ateneo, take them into unfamiliar territory, keep them off balance. it will be very difficult to faze them if we allow them to execute their standard game patterns. During last year’s final four playoffs against Ateneo, the Archers showed different looks on defense, and the Blue Eagles could not effectively run their plays because they could not be sure what defensive setup they would encounter. Uncertainty is a great weapon against confidence.
Focus for 40 minutes, no lapses of concentration – The Archers cannot afford any lapses similar to what happened at the end of the 2nd quarter that resulted in a wide open Reyes triple. This is a game of runs, and the Archers should not allow Ateneo to build up any momentum. They should also play within the system and go back to basics on offense. Of particular mention is the tendency of the forwards to attempt to push the ball up by themselves when they get a defensive rebound. We turned over the ball several times because the ball wasn’t in the hands of our designated ball handlers. The Archers should also resist the temptation to freelance. In several instances, the ball would find a free Archer on the perimeter early in the shot clock, and instead of following the patterns, the Archer would hoist a long shot without any rebounders in position or penetrate and dish to an unprepared teammate. The long misses were turned into fastbreaks by Ateneo. Focusing on the game at hand also includes not falling prey to the mind games of the Eagles, because we can expect them to try the utmost to close it out on Thursday to avoid a winner-take-all on Sunday.
Team defense – the traditional strength of the Archers is their defense, and their ability to change the play patterns of the opponent with different looks. This was so successful last year during the playoffs, but was not too evident in game 1 except in the first half where they forced several turnovers. In the 2nd half, they allowed Ateneo to stay within their comfort levels, and it’s difficult to win when Ateneo’s playing their game. In particular, the inside defense must prevent easy shots or one-on-one plays by the blue bigs. Also watch out for the isolation plays for Buenafe where he dribbles and dishes off under or double pumps his shot. If I were the coach (which I’m not), I’d overplay at the perimeter to prevent penetrations. Let them beat us from the long court.
Play within the system – The Archers should know when to take shots, and when to go isolation. Rico must stop trying to take the last shot at the end of the quarter. JV is the go-to guy on the team, set him up instead of allowing him to create by himself. And our big men should be alert whenever an Archer gets through the perimeter defense – our bigs would end up bobbling the ball or being called for travelling because they were unprepared for the pass.
Play like there’s no tomorrow – Because there won’t be any tomorrow if we lose. The crown is ours until someone takes it away. We’re not going to surrender the title without a fight, and the Green Archers are at their most dangerous when their backs are against the wall. This is the culmination of all the preparation since the beginning of the year. Six other schools have fallen by the wayside, and the are only 2 games before we repeat. Give it 101% like we know you can. Franz is the master in these situations – he’s done it before.
Look to the stands for strength and support – To the Archers: if you doubt our support, just look at our stands. We’re with you all the way, and we won’t let you down. We’ll cheer like there’s no tomorrow, and we will not be out-cheered on Thursday.
Come in early, get good seats, let it all hang out during the game, and be ready to do it all over again on Sunday.
KEEP THE FAITH!