Takeaways From the Opening Week of the PBA Bubble

(Philippine) Basketball is back! It’s only been a week since the start of the PBA Bubble, but it’s safe to say that it’s been quite an experience thus far. From scoring outbursts to multiple thrillers, the PBA has provided plenty of entertainment for all of us.

Here are some takeaways from the opening week that was:

Photo from the PBA

TNT and Ginebra established themselves as early favorites

The Philippine Cup felt extremely wide open coming into the PBA Bubble. However, two teams have jumped out as early favorites for the crown: the TNT Tropang GIGA and the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. What separates TNT and Ginebra from rest is the feeling of inevitability you get every time they step on the court.

TNT has always been fueled by its perimeter attack, but if there’s one thing which has helped TNT make the leap from good to great thus far, it’s been the addition of Poy Erram. After a rocky first game, Erram has bounced back nicely with great performances versus the San Miguel Beermen and the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters. His rebounding and rim protection complimented the steady playmaking of Jayson Castro, the hot shooting of Roger Pogoy, and the all-around excellence of Bobby Ray Parks. Thanks to that nice balance, the Tropang GIGA have looked extremely steady to start this conference.

For Ginebra, their depth and the timeless excellence of Coach Tim Cone has fueled their two-way attack. Established stars like Japeth Aguilar and Stanley Pringle have continued to produce, but Coach Cone has mixed things up by giving his younger players more minutes. He hits two birds with one stone by doing this. By spreading the fair share of minutes and reserving the energy of his veterans, his younger players get the chance to develop their games with more playing time. Prince Caperal has been a revelation. Arvin Tolentino’s stock has been rapidly rising.

Talent still wins basketball games, and both these teams are full of it. With exceptional rosters that are balanced across the board, it won’t surprise anyone at this point if we end up seeing these two juggernauts in the Finals of the Bubble.

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Phoenix and Rain or Shine emerging as dark horses

The Bubble setup’s excitement stems from the unpredictability it fosters. Just look at the NBA, who would have expected the Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat to make the runs they did against established squads such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks? If there’s a place for the dark horse to shine, it’s the bubble.

In the PBA, two teams have emerged as early dark horses for the championship: the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters and the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters.

The LPG Fuel Masters were already on the rise as early as last season and they’ve looked to build on the momentum they have. Matthew Wright has continued to be excellent, but what’s allowed Phoenix to be even better has been the play of their big men. Justin Chua has experienced a career resurgence under Coach Topex Robinson. Jason Perkins has slowly established himself as a must-watch big man, arguably already in the same tier as the Mo Tautuaa’s and the Christian Standhardinger’s of the world.

The Elasto Painters have always been a competitive team, and they’ve stepped it up a notch thanks to their youth. Some of their players have made a leap and their rookies have provided an added punch to their squad. Rey Nambatac and Javee Mocon have taken the wheel as the franchise’s main options. Adrian Wong, Clint Doliguez, and Prince Rivero have maximized the minutes that they’ve been given. Veterans Beau Belga, Gabe Norwood, and James Yap have provided great guidance for the team.

They’re still a tier below TNT and the Ginebra, but Phoenix and Rain or Shine are rising. Youth and excellent coaching have done wonders for these two teams. They may just make the leap to title contention, especially in an environment as volatile as the Bubble.

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End of the Beermen’s run?

Losing June Mar Fajardo was a huge blow for the San Miguel Beermen, but all wasn’t lost coming into the bubble. They still had their vets. Their roster was still filled with talent and potential that could explode en route to a sixth straight Philippine Cup championship. They couldn’t be counted. That was always the case for a team as seasoned as the Beermen, at least until Terrence Romeo bumped into Ryan Reyes, and dislocated his shoulder.

Composure, veteran smarts, and experience can only do so much for a basketball team. You will need talent and some form of youth to fill your squad. That’s what San Miguel had with Romeo. He was built to be their primary option; an isolation and PNR savant with the skill and individual firepower to carry an offense. Now he’s done for the bubble. Where do the Beermen go from here?

Against the TerraFirma Dyip, The Beermen went back to their roots. Instead of dumping the ball to Fajardo, they used Mo Tautuaa as their lynchpin in the post. It wasn’t the same interior dominance they’ve always been associated with, but it still led to beautiful basketball. The ball was constantly zipping around the floor. Energy levels were high and Tautuaa’s passing was a welcome sight. For a while, it looked like classic San Miguel.

But everyone knows that without Fajardo and Romeo, it won’t be the same for San Miguel. They are still defending champions, but to call them favorites would be stretching it. Change is inevitable, and it’s coming for the Beermen. How that change will happen, is what fans will have to wait and see.

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Can Blackwater actually be Elite?

The teams in the PBA are separated between conglomerate and indie, and even those groupings come with their own sub-tiers. Out of those six, one half has been defiant with how its fought against the bigger teams in the league. The other half has been disappointing to say the least, often remembered for being involved in trades rather than excellent basketball.

Blackwater belongs to the latter, but surprisingly, they’ve been playing great basketball in the Bubble. A large part of their success is thanks to Coach Nash Racela’s tutelage. Despite the lack of established talent in his roster, Racela’s given the Elite a system that’s organized and effective. He’s empowered his guards to attack and create while his big men have provided ample support with their rebounding, defense, and even shooting from the outside.

Roi Sumang and Ed Daquioag have particularly stood out for Blackwater. Both stars in the collegiate ranks, they’ve created an exciting one-two punch by blending their skills together. Sumang’s shot making and ability to create has been on full display. Daquioag’s ability to penetrate and attack has perfectly complimented Sumang’s firepower from outside. Of course, Mac Belo continues to be as steady as ever, looking like he’s always ready to tear your heart out whenever he gets the ball in the clutch.

They aren’t championship contenders… yet? It’s too early to tell given the youth of this Blackwater squad. But if they keep this play up and maintain the core of this squad, then maybe fabs will remember Blackwater more for their excellent basketball play, rather than the trades they’re involved in.

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The biggest foe of PBA teams right now: Injuries

For the most part, the PBA Bubble has been a success thus far. There have been zero COVID-positive tests and the league has created a safe and open environment for the players to prepare for their games. To the credit of the league, they’ve made the most out of the limited time they were given.

However, there is one thing which needs to be monitored moving forward: injuries. The sad reality is the PBA did not give teams ample time to get their players into playing condition. Two weeks for light scrimmages isn’t enough. Athletes need a certain amount of time, so their bodies are ready for the rigors of professional play. Not everyone is a LeBron James or even a Kiefer Ravena who have lavish home gym setups to keep their bodies in playing shape. Lack of time for preparation was always going to increase the chances of injuries from happening.

There’s been three major injuries thus far in the bubble: Kib Montalbo’s plantar fasciitis during his stellar debut game, Kevin Racal’s ACL tear, and Terrence Romeo’s dislocated shoulder.  It’s a shame all of these had to happen at a time when the league is so wide open. The last thing any team wants is for injuries to dictate how they’re viewed especially through certain lenses.

Hopefully, less players go down and have to leave the bubble due to any untoward incidents. The league needs to keep an eye on how this develops, because right now, injuries are the biggest foe teams are facing as they chase their dreams of winning a championship.