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The View From the Armchair – Season 77 First Round

 

The diehard supporters of the Green Archers now breathe a bit easier.

After stumbling at the start of the tournament by losing their first two games, the repeat-seeking Green Archers have climbed back into contention at the end of the first round. Recovering nicely from the morale-deflating initial setbacks, the Archers won the next 5 games, a couple of nail-biters against expected contenders NU and UE, followed by blowouts against bottom dwellers ADU and UP, and a tough one against UST.

A Not-So-Good Start

Coming from successful stints where the team captured championships in the last 3 tournaments they participated in (UAAP76, PCCL, Fil-Oil), the Archers were generally seen as a good bet to retain the title. However, at first glance, the title-retention prospects of the team seemed rocky as the team staggered to a 0-2 start.

Our first two games were against playoff prospects FEU and Ateneo, and in these games the Archers started off brightly, running off to good first quarters, averaging 23 points and typically dominating the proceedings. In the second canto of both games, the team suffered a letdown of sorts, averaging only 13.5 points and allowing the opponents to gain confidence and narrow the gap. The Archers allowed the Tams and Blue Eagles to keep pace in the 3rd, where we scored 22 points in both games while the opponents matched our output. It was in the crucial final 10 minutes of both games where we let the game slip from our grasp by allowing the opponents to average 30.5 points while we only averaged 21.5 points.

Both of the first 2 games were high scoring affairs, 77-82 vs FEU and 86-97 against Ateneo. We tried to win via shootouts in these two games, but ultimately fell short. The two losses left many wondering whether the team had what it takes to defend the title. To compound the situation, starting point guard Thomas Torres went down with a fractured ankle to reduce our lineup to 13 players. Thomas was initially ruled out for the rest of the season, but after a few days the prognosis was revised to around 6 weeks.

Finally Getting Our Bearings

The third game against unbeaten NU was viewed as the first litmus test of the ability of the Archers to contend. The two defeats had shaken the confidence of some supporters. But the Archers finally got their game going, using this game to make a statement that they could not yet be counted out. The Archers came out determined to prove the naysayers wrong, engaging NU in a drag down, slow paced, low scoring slugfest which ended in our favor by a slim 57-55 decision. This time the Archers kept their nerve in the face of NU’s determined comeback and earned a confidence-boosting first victory despite Jeron Teng having a really bad day with just 2 points. Jason Perkins’ end-game heroics saved the day for the green-and-white, while handing NU their first loss. Notable in this loss was the failure of the Green Archers to sink any 3point attempts, as they went 0/16.

Up next was 2-0 UE, which was led by the high scoring Sumang and hulking center Mammie, piloted by the brothers Pumaren, both former DLSU coaches who espouse the full-court press. UE has won the first two games via blowouts, and loomed as a very tough opponent. True enough, they piled on the pressure from the tip-off, forcing the Archers into a horrendous 34 errors. They battled the Archers on even terms for the first half, but broke away by 10 after 3 to threaten hand us our third loss. That’s when the Archer fighting spirit came to the fore, as the Archers overwhelmed UE in the final 10 minutes, 24-12 to win by just a basket. Again the Archers misfired from afar, making only 1/11 from beyond the arc. Our inability to attack the zone with outside shooting appeared to be an invitation for teams to go zone against us. Again, the Archers handed a previously unbeaten opponent their first loss.

Up next was rookie-laden Adamson, which sure enough tried the zone against us. Actually, it’s all they could realistically do, as they were outmatched man-to-man with our players. This one was an expected walk in the part and the Archers did not disappoint, romping to a comfortable 67-48 victory to nail their third victory. Centers AVO and Norbert Torres were held out due to injuries, forcing Coach Juno to field his entire lineup. This was Kib Montalbo’s breakout game, and he scored 18 points on a highly effective 9/12 from the field. Prince Rivero scored in double digits to provide support, but we continued to misfire from afar (3/15) although we were much more accurate closer to the basket.

UP was our penultimate opponent, and Jeron Teng made sure that the outcome would not be at risk as he exploded for 20 points in the first half alone, before finishing with 25. The Archers shredded the net for 50 points in the first 20 minutes, then coasted in the 2nd half with just 24 points to easily win 74-53.

Last year’s finals opponent UST was our last opponent, and while we won it, this victory was marred by two injuries to Norbert (cut) and Kib (calf muscle). UST gave us all we could handle for almost 3 quarters, before the Archers overwhelmed the Tigers in the 3rd to repeat their mastery over the Espana-based dribblers, 83-70. This was a testy match featuring some trash talking and taunting, including an unsavoury comment by the UST coach against Jason Perkins.

What was the key?

First off, defense. Games are won by the team which has at least one more point than the opponents, and we managed to do that in our last 5 games. It wasn’t pretty, but the Archers got it done.

In the first two games, both losses, the Archers gave up an average of 89.5 points against FEU and Ateneo. Probably the highest scores of our opponents in Coach Juno’s entire stint with La Salle.

In the last 5 games, the Archers’ defense allowed opponents only 56.8 points, an impressive drop of almost 33 points. We played contenders NU, UE, and UST, so it can’t be said that our opponents in this 5-game stretch were pushovers. Our offensive output actually dropped from the first 2 games (81.5 ppg) to 68.2 points per game over the last 5, a reduction of 13.3 points per game. Our players learned to play honest man-to-man defense and rarely allowed penetrations or easy baskets; the opponents had to literally bleed for their points.

One of the reasons frequently cited for our losses was the zone – ours. Teams which know how to attack the zone will utilize quick ball movement and lots of passing to create gaps where they position their shooters. They will use screens to create some space for gunners, who need only some separation to fire away. FEU got away with 7 treys out of 18 tries while Ateneo made 10/27. Many of these were relatively uncontested, off screens, as our guards invariably went under screens instead of challenging the shooters. Ateneo attacked the zone by quickly rotating the ball around the perimeter, or by a successful drive and kick-out as our defenders sagged in the paint to contest the penetration. The gaps in our zone also allowed them to get several offensive rebounds which they turned into 2nd chance points.

NU is a good outside shooting team, but we limited them to just 3/17. UE was slightly more successful with 5/14, but our defense forced them to miss 35 out of 50 from inside the arc – they actually shot better from the 3point area than from closer in, because UE ended with a 31% clip. Adamson was held to 32% shooting from the field, and 3/14 (21%) on threes. UP was forced to shoot from outside and they made a decent 4/9, but shot only 15/71 (21%) under pressure from our defenders closer in. UST was a bit of an exception as they nailed 6/22 from afar (27%) and 20/46 inside the 3point area – a good 43.5% clip. However, we did better with 6/19 for 3pointers and 21/38 closer in.

As mentioned earlier, the drastic difference in points allowed resulted from the ability of our perimeter defenders to prevent open outside shots and funnelling the opponents towards our waiting bigs. If we repeat this year, difficult as it may seem, our defense will will still need to improve further. How? Perhaps by giving different or deceptive looks – opponents call plays when they see our initial setup, but if we can morph that into a different scheme, it negates their called set pattern and they could end up with a broken play. We can still go zone, but selectively, and perhaps a touch of press and traps every so often. Oh yeah, it would be nice to occasionally blitz the pick-and-roll and force the dribbler back towards the half court line.

The emergence of our bench

Our starters will always be candidates for all-league positions – AVO at center, Jason at PF, Jeron at SF, Almond at SG, and Thomas at PG. They can compete effectively with any starting five in the league. While we may have a bit of an advantage, the first team can’t do it by themselves for the full 40 minutes.

While Kib came off the bench in the first 2 games, he has been elevated to the first 5 with the injury of Thomas. Kib’s performance in the last 5 games has shown why he was so highly regarded coming out of high school. He ably quarterbacked the team, was effective in setting up the plays, and scored when he was free. Norbert now comes off the bench, but his improvement in both defense and offense has given us a lift. Prince has been a revelation, playing tough on both defense and offense; he will be a mainstay in the very near future with his ability to play both forward positions. Abu is beginning to get used to the game, and held his own against Abdul and even contributed some points. Julian will be a pain in the neck for his counterparts on other teams, with his athleticism, length, and speed, and he can hit the long ones or finish at the rim. Yutien is effective whenever he gets on the court, and will always be a threat under the basket. Robert is aggressive and hardworking, and his energy was finally unleashed against UST where he delivered as a shock trooper to help us get a double digit lead in the second half against UST. Matt has been used sparingly and has been a bit gunshy when he has opportunities to bomb away from afar, while Terrence has seen action in just 2 games. With a bit more action for both, they should be able to contribute.

Looking forward to the second round

Much has been said during the pre-season about our depth. The 14-man lineup looked sufficient until we got hit by injuries to Thomas, AVO, Norbert, Terrence, and Kib. In particular, our pgs were decimated against UST when Kib went down, and Terrence was on the bench with a wrist injury. We had to resort to a point-guard-by-committee with Almond, Julian, Jeron, and Jason bringing the ball up. It worked, but it’s not the ideal situation. The Archers still seem vulnerable if any more injuries hit the team, but the coaches have found alternative combinations which minimize the impact of losing our injured players.

Although the Archers now have a 5-2 record, good enough for 3rd (actually tied for 2nd in terms of W-L), there’s still much to be done. The errors are one area for concern. It’s surprising because the familiarity of the players with each other should reduce the miscommunication that has been evident at times. The team still has a tendency to relax when they get a bit of a lead instead of showing the killer instinct and not letting up until the game result has been decided.

Admittedly, the team is still far from hitting its peak, but has already shown a lot of improvement in different areas compared to the first two games. Ball movement is crisper, passes are less tentative, the makings of a press break are evident, and the boys seem to know how to attack a zone. They are beginning to know where their teammates will be almost intuitively on both offense and defense. And the composure is beginning to show, that confidence that they can win in the end game; this was so lacking against FEU and Ateneo.

The challenges posed by the various injuries will still be there, particularly since AVO has missed 5 games already, and reintegrating him might take some adjustment. We also can’t overlook the opponents, who will continue to prepare specifically for us.

What will make this team successful in defending the title cannot easily be defined. But the small steps, incremental improvements on a game-by-game basis are indicative that the Archers are getting there. They will get better and better with every game. And that is a warning for the competition – it will not be easy to take the title away from this team. Because this team will take it one step at a time, one game at a time.

The second round starts this Sunday against Ateneo. We will be undermanned, as not all of our players will have fully recovered. Thomas will still be out, AVO is doubtful as is Kib. But despite these setbacks, the Archers have found a way. I think we’ll see more of that on Sunday.

It will always be ANIMO LA SALLE!