Seizing the throne: Gin Kings begin a one-of-a-kind reign
Coach Tim Cone believes championships are meant to be seized swiftly.
“You don’t want to nonchalantly walk to it, you’d want to race to it,” he said on the eve of Game 5 of the PBA’s Philippine Cup Finals.
That might very well describe the way the Gin Kings won their first all-Filipino crown in 13 years. Barangay Ginebra turned back TNT on Wednesday night, scraping past undermanned TNT, 82-78, at Angeles University Foundation.
Three of Ginebra’s wins went down the wire and may have forced a lot of hard labor out of the Kings side, but the team seized the series in a shorter time than many would have thought. Part of it was the injuries that TNT suffered during the title showdown. The Tropang Giga lost gunner Ray Parks Jr. after Game 1 and then top playmaker Jayson Castro for Game 5.
The rest was Ginebra’s doing: Steady performances down the stretch, a healthy roster and some out-of-the box thinking needed for an extraordinary situation.
Just don’t ask Cone how everything came together.
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you know,” Cone said with a hearty laugh.
“Honestly I don’t know. I’ve been blessed with great players. I’ve been graced with great managements with Alaska, with Purefoods, and Ginebra. And the players. I don’t know. We find ways. We don’t win pretty, as you all know. We never win pretty. Our teams never win pretty, but we find a way.”
They found a way for 71 days inside a self-contained, highly restrictive environment, where the league was pushed into by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it’s just coaching outside the box that was the biggest takeaway from [this experience],” Cone told the Inquirer, who hiked his title count to 23.
“Knowing how to coach outside the box, [dropping] the things you’d normally do; [we were] kinda forced into those situations that you’d normally practice at this time, push hard at this time when you’d kind of relax it,” he added.
Somehow he found a balance inside the bubble. Japeth Aguilar reported late and was out of shape early in the tournament. In the last game, he scored 18 of his 32 points to keep the Gin Kings in the thick of things—that was nearly twice his average output through the first four games of the series (17 points, 9.2 rebounds).
LA Tenorio was also finding his legs early on after entering the bottle just 13 days after an appendectomy. He was named Finals Most Valuable Player after quarterbacking the Kings magnificently in the series and finishing with 10 points and six assist in Game 5. Stanley Pringle carried Ginebra from the early stages onward but showed he was human with a winded Game 3 effort. Pringle hit timely shots inside the final five minutes of the title clincher.
“The timing [was] just amazing,” Tenorio said.
“I think [this was] one of the most difficult ones to win,” Cone told the Inquirer as he packed his bags on Thursday afternoon. “I think we downplayed the fact that we were off for six months and guys were off for six months and we had to get these guys in shape and do it while not causing injuries.”
The Kings certainly looked every inch ready for more battles inside the bubble, with no major injuries slowing them down.
“I’d continue playing if there was a next game,” Tenorio said with a chuckle.
“We always say in our team that our health is our weapon. We feel if we’re healthy, we always have a chance to win, we have a chance to compete for championships,” Cone said.
“It was a really difficult process and you know, sayang for TNT, they had injuries in the end, and that kind of presented an opportunity for us to win four to one instead of having to go through a Game 7. It probably would’ve happened if everyone was healthy. But we cannot be faulted for that.”
And Ginebra’s run of good health as a key to its triumph had a stark backdrop: The empty stands that remained a daily reminder why teams had to play in the bubble.
It is also a reminder why it will be a special reign for the Kings.
“Twenty to 30 years from now, maybe when they look back and they say, ‘You know that bubble championship?’ They’ll remember our team because we had the most unique championship in the history of the PBA. It’s really cool,” Cone said.
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