Lessons from the Weekend of Justin Brownlee

For the case of this piece, the weekend of July 27 to July 29 will be called the Weekend of Justin Brownlee. Three days with two Finals games sandwiched in between. To name a weekend after a player, he must have done something ridiculous. That’s pretty much what Brownlee did.

On Friday morning, in between all of the hype, we asked ourselves who would stop Brownlee? Come the evening, we found an answer we could cling on for that question: no one. It was dominance personified.

On Saturday, the talk of the town aside from Ginebra’s win, was Brownlee. In pick-up games, players excitedly tried to copy his moves. During dinner, dads and lolos around the country exclaimed to their sons and apos, “Ang galing nung Brownlee na iyon ha!” If he wasn’t before, Justin Brownlee had just become a household name.

On Sunday, fans were expecting another Brownlee masterpiece, and that’s exactly what they got. Justin was red hot once more. Never mind that the series was tied at one a piece, Ginebra fans could sleep easy, because arguably the most important takeaway they got over the course of those three days: Brownlee has the best player in these Finals. You could even make an argument it isn’t even close.

What makes Brownlee garnering the early title of best player in the Finals, is how he’s doing it against a STACKED San Miguel team. June Mar Fajardo and Renaldo Balkman are his two biggest (and most obvious) adversaries for the title given their sheer pedigree. Alex Cabagnot and Christian Standhardinger have both had their moments, with the latter emerging as San Miguel’s most consistent player thus far. At the end of the day, all of that doesn’t matter. They simply haven’t been good enough to match whatever Justin Brownlee’s done so far.

Dominant is the word to describe Brownlee’s performance, but it’s easy to simplify what he’s been doing according to a particular criteria. When hearing the word ‘dominant’, we always associate this with a monster athlete who overpowers the rest of his competition. LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, and for Philippine Basketball, Fajardo are some of the names who fit this criteria as physically imposing beings. Brownlee is anything but. Instead, he’s controlled the game by playing with more intelligence, skill and patience than everybody else.

We already saw that at the start of the series. The Beermen elected to put Arwind Santos on Brownlee, a curious move considering Santos’ slender frame. He could easily counter with length, but it didn’t really matter. Brownlee barreled his way to the rim to score the very first points of the series, and to set the tone for the rest of the game.

That was indeed physical dominance by Brownlee, using his thicker build to go through the lanky Santos. But he didn’t directly use that advantage like how I’d spam my cousin with Hadoukens again and again in Street Fighter. Instead, he used that to make the other parts of his game easier to execute.

By establishing that he could punish Santos around with his size, the rest of the game became easier for him. In the first quarter, he used a number of timely cuts to get rhythm looks at buckets. Santos had chances to contest, but more often than not he didn’t. Brownlee’s physical dominance wasn’t a Hadouken that was predictable. Instead, it was an RKO, a move that can literally come out of nowhere, so opponents hesitated over fear of this. Brownlee had established his rhythm, and no one in the Beermen could do anything to stop him.

Fast forward to Game 2, and San Miguel adjusted. They sent more traps at Brownlee, trying to stop him from establishing dominance over defenders. The truly great players adjust back, and that’s what Brownlee did. Since he couldn’t move anyone around like a rag doll anymore, he used his teammates to get points. Sometimes moving off the ball and allowing the offense to come to you is your best bet to score.

By the end of the game, the number that popped out when talking about Brownlee, was how he scored 29 points on 11/14 shooting. That meant he just missed THREE shots, a total of just five over the course of two games. It’s a small sample size, yes, but it’s clear: Brownlee is a problem for the Beermen.

His numbers are sustainable, because he’s getting his points off efficient opportunities. This isn’t some player pounding the rock again and again, taking off balance shots that are just happening to go in. He’s doing the simple things at an all-time level, and it’s leading to production.

There’s a problem, however. In Game 2, amidst Brownlee’s excellence, Ginebra lost by 25 points. While everyone else has remained at awe over Brownlee, the lesson that’s been forgotten by many over the course of these two games is this: As brilliant as Brownlee has been, he needs the rest of his teammates to get the job done.

Brownlee is a sure 25 points on efficient numbers. But what spelled the difference between Game 1 and 2 was how San Miguel defended Brownlee, and the result it had to the rest of the team.

By sending more traps at his way off pick and rolls, San Miguel forced Brownlee to create under pressure. They weren’t willing to allow Brownlee to feast on mismatches anymore. Instead, they were willing to throw an extra defender at him when the screen came.

The ideal reaction to such an adjustment is to pass the ball to whoever gets free. But versus a San Miguel team with that much length and nimble athletes, it becomes a problem. So you either; throw errant passes with the hopes of the ball landing on your teammate’s hands, or just try to dribble your way out of the situation.

The result was the offensive flow of Ginebra not being as smooth as Game 1. Brownlee was forced to take on a lot of possessions and to create for others. He can create for others, just not in the way San Miguel was forcing him to do so. He was forced into becoming an isolation player, and it resulted to hurried decision-making from the rest of the team. The shot below may have gone in, but it was an uncomfortable pass by Brownlee. One that could have easily been converted into a turnover if the Beermen got correct footing.

The challenge then for Ginebra is to make things easier for their import. They won’t be able to control when San Miguel decides to throw their traps. Instead, the Ginebra can challenge the traps of San Miguel by showing confidence with their decision making whenever the ball makes it to their hands.

The less dribbles Brownlee takes, the better. He doesn’t need to hold the ball until the shot clock winds down. He plays best off the ball, taking two dribbles at best. The rest are either efficient pull-ups, drives to the rim, or even better, passes that are within the flow of the offense.

The only way for the Ginebra offense to maintain its flow is when the rest of the team is able to contribute. It’s certainly a challenge given San Miguel’s newfound mojo on the defensive end. But they’re going to have to adjust, just like what any great individual or group does. At the end of the day, as excellent as Justin Brownlee did, he cannot do everything alone. He needs his teammates to help him out with the pressure San Miguel is throwing at them, because he himself cannot handle it alone. It’s not meant to be a slight at Brownlee. It’s simply reality, especially when facing a team as stacked as the Beermen.

It’s fun to look back and celebrate the monster weekend Justin Brownlee had. Ginebra certainly needs him. But as great as he’s been he can’t do it alone. Against the San Miguel Beermen, popularity won’t just cut it. You need to play near-perfect basketball as a team to take them down. Especially when they’re this close to another championship.

The saying goes, “It takes a whole Barangay to win a championship,” not, “It takes a Justin Brownlee to win a championship. But this is different. For the Commissioner’s Cup to be the Conference of Ginebra, it’s going to have to be, “It takes a whole Barangay AND Justin Brownlee to win a championship.” Awesome weekends are just not going to cut it.