Pulled into a knock-down, drag-out battle by an opponent that built its reputation on blood-and-guts warfare, Talk ‘N Text is slowly drowning in a quagmire of unfamiliarity and bluster.
And unless bold yet doomed plans to continue engaging Rain or Shine in a fierce physical exchange in Game 4 of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals are abandoned, the Tropang Texters could find themselves in a dark hole from which but one team out of the previous 33 had climbed from.
ROS guns for a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 championship series at 7 tonight at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, with the E-Painters expected to again take off the gloves and lure the Texters into WWE combat as in the two previous games.
Clearly, white collar TNT, which stands solid on the rock of precision planning and perfect execution, is lost when thrown into a bare-knuckle street brawl as shown by the way it succumbed to heavy pressure in Game Two, 116-108, and withered under relentless assault in Game Three, 109-97.
The Tropang Texters won the opener, 99-92, but flailed helplessly in unfamiliar waters when push came to shove in the succeeding games after import Ivan Johnson was fined R150,000 for knocking over ROS coach Yeng Guiao in Game One.
Not only did Rain or Shine rally from 17 points down to level the series at 1-1, the Elasto Painters also demonstrated the stamina to hang on to a payback 17-point bubble in Game Three, repulsing every fightback TNT could muster.
Johnson drew first blood in the finals after hitting ROS star point guard Paul Lee with an elbow late in the third quarter of Game Three, knocking out a front teeth and loosening two more. But even the Tropang Texters cringed at the sight of a bloodied Lee, who courageously came back late in the game to deliver a strong statement.
“Kahit anong mangyari sa akin, babalik ako; masaktan ako, babalik ako,” Lee said after the game. “Gusto ko matapos ‘yung championship series talaga.”
TNT coach Jong Uichico, a restrained and reserved figure on and off the court, maintained after Game Three that there would be no backing down against Rain or Shine.
“I don’t think so,” said Uichico when asked whether the growing ferocity of the series has given Rain or Shine an advantage given the E-Painters’ familiarity at working in such volatile conditions and Talk ‘N Text’s less ruthless, more clinical approach to the game.
“It’s just the way the game is. If you back down from the physicality, then you give the upper hand to the other team,” he said.
Brave words, if not brash.
Trouble is, their apparent fixation at not backing down from Rain or Shine and at painting a belligerent image to match Beau Belga and Co. has apparently thrown the Texters’ game plan in disarray aside from nudging them out of their comfort zone: dribble-drive, drive-and-kick, two-man game, locate the spot-up shooter, running in transition.
They had a hard time executing the offense as fluidly as they wanted to in Game Three, with Jayson Castro, who unloaded 44 points last Friday, stymied after ROS started switching Wayne Chism on him during TNT’s pick ‘n roll plays from top of the key.
Castro finished with a respectable 20 points but only had two triples after draining an all-time record nine 3s in Game Two. TNT, meanwhile, shot 39 percent from the field (31 of 80) to ROS’s 42 percent, missed 12 free throws, committed six more errors, had 16 less assists, got outrushed 17-5 in fast breaks, and was badly beaten off the bench, 39 points to 10.
Worse, Chism outplayed the distracted Johnson, who has reportedly become the object of some vicious slurs ever since the incident with Guiao.
Not one to let an opportunity pass by, the ROS mentor had tossed a wrench into the Texters’ coughing machine.
“We kept running the offense we’ve been using in Game Two waiting for them to make an adjustment, but they never did,” said Guiao. “We had anticipated some things pero di pa nila pinakita, so we’ll just keep that in the warehouse and make use of them based on the defense they’ll play in Game Four.”
How TNT intends to slow down Chism, who had 30 and 32 in the last two games, and the determined Lee could ultimately decide how far the series will go.
With his two front teeth saved for Christmas, Lee will suit up and play tonight following a dental procedure at the Cardinal Santos Medical Center.
Lee lost a tooth and had two more pushed up his gums after absorbing an elbow from Johnson during a draw-charge situation in the third quarter of Game Three. A concerned Gilas Pilipinas coach Tab Baldwin, a consultant with TNT, consoled the injured Lee just before the former University of the East star proceeded to the dugout where he stayed until that big comeback in the final four minutes.
Understandably, Guiao used the harrowing incident to illustrate a point.
“If you have your top player falling down on the floor with an elbow to his face and then you call a regular foul, then delikado na yan dahil things are getting out of hand. Paano kung broken nose yon or something worse?” he said. “We just want consistency with the calls and hope the referees don’t let things get out of hand.”
Something else, as much as consistency, is probably warranted.
Modifying rules in the middle of the series and becoming more stringent with contacts and trash-talking could be a difficult thing, but so is stepping into a bench-emptying fray which could be just around the bend given the explosive nature of the championship and the league’s seeming tolerance for pocket mayhem.
The harm that befell Paul Lee is by far the most serious, but others have been hurt as well. And with players fast turning into gladiators in the heat of the moment, Guiao’s call for order amid the confusion could be what might save the series from plunging into irreversible chaos.