WORDS by Miguel Caramoan
Reaching the mountaintop didn’t come easy for the TNT Tropang Giga. In the 2023 PBA Commissioner’s Cup, they failed to qualify for the playoffs, which is an unusual sight for this powerhouse squad.
The franchise made minor tweaks to bolster their chances in the third conference and—with Chot Reyes focusing on the national team—promoted Jojo Lastimosa to the head coaching gig and added Serbian consultant Lale Gorunivoc to the staff. TNT also shored up its roster by acquiring Justin Chua and Paul Varilla from the NLEX Road Warriors.
For reliable role player Justin Chua, being able to play for a team like the Tropang Giga felt like a blessing. After winning in all the five years that he spent in college with Ateneo, he was thrilled to get another opportunity to compete for another title – this time in the pro ranks.
“Syempre masaya because TNT has always been a contender in the PBA. Kaya I was so excited to be able to play for a winning club and experience playing in the finals and getting that championship again,” Chua replied.
Brought back for a second stint to help the squad on rebounding and interior defense, Chua emphasized the importance to lock in on defense to have a better showing.
“The team really focused on team defense, because we felt that was the main problem why TNT didn’t make the playoffs last conference. [Our] offense will always be a given, so improving our defense might unlock our scoring even more,” the 33-year-old player said.
The return of Chua became a blessing in disguise for the Tropang Giga, as their main man in the middle, Poy Erram, sustained an injury in the latter part of the Commissioner’s Cup. Knowing he might be sidelined in the eliminations, Erram was confident that the team’s other bigs would deliver if they just accepted the role given to them.
“During our training camp, one reminder na sinabi sa amin ng coaching staff is we need to buy into the system. Kaya naging malaki tiwala ko kay Kuya Kelly [Williams] and Justin [Chua], na kung gagawin nila trabaho nila, everything will be fine sa rotation namin ng bigs,” Erram responded.
That’s exactly what happened as the Tropang Giga dominated the eliminations, getting the first seed with a 10-1 win-loss record. Staying true to their word, TNT’s defense became astute as they held the second-best defensive rating in the league.
In terms of offense, it clicked even more as they also had the second-best offense in the PBA. Star guard Mikey Williams averaged 18.8 points per game and a more comfortable Calvin Oftana stepped up with numbers of 13.3 points per game while shooting 43 percent from deep.
Before the Governors’ Cup started, TNT had a rough showing in the EASL Champions Week, where they faced Korean and Japanese teams. But Chua believes it was a learning experience for them to become a better collective unit.
“It’s a different ball game there [in the EASL]. Hindi kaya ng one to two weeks preparation ‘yung mga ganyan na tournament. Naging biggest help lang talaga nito is it strengthened our chemistry, which really showed in the latter part of the Governors’ Cup,” Chua mentioned.
With their import Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the helm, the Tropang Giga went on to win four straight in the elimination round, cruising past the Phoenix Fuel Masters in the quarterfinals and beating the Meralco Bolts in the semifinals to reach the finals for the second time in the same season.
Not only did fans get astonished by the quality of play Hollis-Jefferson exemplified, but even his own teammates raved about the NBA veteran’s work ethic.
“Iba talaga yung discipline niya sa court. Makikita talaga sa kanya yung passion niya to win and mental toughness to lead us in crucial situations. Magandang example siya for me and the whole team as well,” Erram said about their import.
In the finals, TNT had to deal with the defending champions Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. Let’s be real – the odds weren’t in their favor going into this series. The other side had the reigning MVP, eventual Best Player of the Conference winner, perennial Best Import candidate, and the winningest coach in PBA history. In short, it was a tough hill to climb.
“Our game plan against Ginebra was to stop their offensive rebounding and keep the ball in front by not gambling too much. They lead the league in assists plus it can ignite the crowd if we allow them opportunities to drive and score in transition,” Chua answered.
To start the series, unfortunate injuries occurred as Chua and Roger Pogoy went on to miss the whole series. Both were quickly ruled out with Pogoy sustaining a fractured finger and Chua suffering an ACL tear on his right knee.
Requiring surgery, the more severe loss that the Tropang Giga will endure even in the next few conferences is Chua’s absence. An extra body that TNT needed against the formidable Ginebra frontcourt, it was unfortunate that he got bit by the injury bug.
“Nalungkot talaga ako because I prepared hard for the series, Sa practices, I really focused on how to guard C-Stan [Christian Standhardinger], knowing that at some point my name will be called to defend him.”
Despite these mishaps, TNT stuck it out and had the belief that gave themselves a chance versus the Ginebra juggernaut.
Usual contributors performed at the level they were expected to be. Mikey Williams was electric scoring the basketball, Jayson Castro’s calming presence steadied the ship, Calvin Oftana was a perfect secondary scorer for the Tropang Giga, and Hollis-Jefferson with an all-around imprint in the game – nothing more essential than his defense against Justin Brownlee.
Tasked to make his presence felt on the defensive end against the Ginebra frontcourt, Erram made it a point to bounce back from his early struggles in the series and deliver when TNT needed him. He gives credit to the whole squad, which came together seamlessly on defense to finish the job.
“We just took pride sa depensa namin. Alam ko naman si Mikey and Kuya Jayson will deliver sa scoring, kaya ako and even si Rondae made sure to lock down defensively, especially ‘nung last few possessions of Game 6,” Erram said.
In the end, TNT finally captured the elusive Governors’ Cup championship. It was the first pro career title of Hollis-Jefferson and the first title for Jojo Lastimosa as a head coach.
“One thing that we’re most proud of is that everybody did their role to win. It wasn’t just the go-to-guys that stepped up, kasi lahat ng pinasok ni Coach [Jolas] contributed,” Chua shared.
What makes this championship even sweeter for the Tropang Gigas is the fact that it’s the first time Ginebra lost in the PBA Finals with Brownlee as their import, which is definitely an achievement TNT is proud of.
“For us, ito siguro ‘yung pinaka-special na championship because it’s our first in the Governor’s Cup. Tapos we did it versus Ginebra, a strong team who had the crowd with them. Ang sarap sa pakiramdam and sana patuloy ‘yung pag-grow ng team in the next conferences,” Erram said.
Local hoops fans have grown accustomed to seeing TNT as a consistent championship contender. And now that they’re back on top, Chua, Erram, and the Tropang Giga can savor this winning feeling. They’ll have targets on their backs in the coming conferences, but best believe, they are hungry to collect more hardware.
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