In the midst of a Barangay Ginebra storm of points, momentum, highlight dunks and booming triples, TNT KaTropa head coach Nash Racela stayed calm and collected. He refused to lose his cool, nor to surrender to the storm. He knew that there would always be a way out.
At the post-game press conference, Racela revealed his notes to everyone – verses from the book of Psalms. Those words speak of a man who is facing overwhelming odds against him. Yet, his faith steers him in the right direction, and keeps him calm under pressure.
“The whole game, especially when Ginebra making a run in the third quarter, that’s all that I was thinking,” Racela said. “I know it’s always the Lord that has control over everything.”
Faith played a huge role tonight for TNT KaTropa. Not only in the things that cannot be seen, but in those that stepped on the court in Game 4. In the first two games of the semis, TNT took care of business despite iffy play from Jayson Castro. They didn’t need him all that much because import Joshua Smith was simply a man among boys versus the frontline of Barangay Ginebra.
But with one awkward landing in Game 3, that all changed. With Smith out of commission in the entire second half, questions began to creep up for the KaTropa.
Would they have to replace Smith, after he played at such a high level all conference long? Could they survive another off night from Castro? Would this be a repeat of last year’s Governor’s Cup semis?
At the end of Game 4, all of those questions were answered, in resounding fashion. TNT handled their business, and prevented a scenario where they had to play a knockout game against Ginebra. With a 122-109 victory, TNT booked their first finals appearance since 2015.
TNT won that series, behind the brilliant play of Castro in the finals. That was the same case here. Castro finally broke out of his shooting slump, tallying 38 points in the contest. He came into Game 4 averaging only 7.7 points. But despite the low numbers, his head coach never lost trust in his superstar.
“I was telling you after Game One, you expect Jayson to explode,” Racela said. “We didn’t get that in Games 2 and 3. But today, he did.”
A big reason for Racela’s faith in Castro was that “The Blur” would find ways to contribute despite not having a good shooting season. He was still averaging 3.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists prior to Game 4, showing that he was still able to have a positive impact on the game — it was just his scoring that was off the mark.
“He finds ways to contribute,” Racela shared of his star. “Tsaka I was telling somebody, earlier, if you see Jayson’s number in terms of points go down, it just means his assists number will go up, his rebounds will go up. And that just speaks of Jayson.”
With his three-point shot being ice cold in Games 1-3, Castro decided to keep it simple and go with what makes him one of the greatest players in the league today: his aggression to the basket. “For three games, sobrang tight ng defense nila, Defensively, meron sila sa’kin,” Castro said. “So going into Game Four, parang yung mindset ko is to be aggressive na lang.”
And that’s exactly what Castro did. He attacked Ginebra’s defense relentlessly, whether in the halfcourt set or on fastbreaks. By putting pressure on Ginebra, it lessened time for recovery and help, as well as to organize its defense to stop his penetration.
With the defense so concerned about Castro attacking, it opened up the rest of his game as well. His three-point shot started to fall (5-of-8 on three pointers) because of the extra space given in anticipation of his drives. He also dissected the defense on pick and roll situations, leading to some easy baskets for Smith and Kelly Williams inside.
“Kapag tina-trap nila ako, or yung mga may help, that’s the time na hanapin ko yung mga teammtes ko,” Castro bared. “Kasi yung first three games ko parang mas hinahanap ko yung teammate ko compared sa shot (ko).”
His final statline was a masterpiece: 38 points (tying his career high), seven rebounds, 11 assists and two steals. Even for Castro’s standards, this was a brilliant game. He found the perfect mix of taking the lead and also orchestrating his team like a pitch perfect symphony.
TNT is not out of the woods just yet. Not by a long shot. There are still a lot of lingering questions about Smith, and his availability to play in the finals. They’ll need him, because a San Miguel Beermen squad that’s hungry for their first Commissioner’s Cup title in the Leo Austria era. TNT has also played seven games in 13 days, a rugged schedule even for a team with their depth.
But all conference long, they have taken care of business and answered doubts. Whether it was import changes, players on loan for the national team, midseason trades, injuries and blowout losses, TNT has stayed together and trusted in each other.
Will that be enough to defeat San Miguel, in their first trip to the finals in two years?
No one can really tell. But they will always have faith that it can be done.