Defending PBA Commissioner’s Cup champions Tropang TNT had a disastrous opening to their title-retention bid this conference, dropping three of their first four assignments.
Although they managed to squeak past Blackwater when the team opened the conference import-less, the Tropa lost their next three games in a stretch that was filled with things they needed the least.
Then import Ivan Johnson returned in TNT’s second game (against Meralco) after serving a one-game suspension, but Johnson was thrown out just two quarters into his 2016 Commissioner’s Cup debut. Johnson’s actions during that game eventually merited a season-long suspension. The disorganized TNT crew struggled to establish rhythm or find identity early on, and dropped two more games to fall to 1-3.
But just when nothing seems to be going right for TNT, the team finally found a savior in David Simon to fill the void. Simon provided the Tropa with solid numbers in his debut although the team lost to Alaska, and head coach Jong Uichico was quick to recognize the different dimension Simon has brought to the team that game.
“He is giving us numbers that we need,” Uichico said.
Over the past five seasons, the Commissioner’s Cup had been good to the Tropa. TNT bagged the mid-season conference titles in 2011 and 2015, made the finals in 2012 and 2014, and the semi-finals in 2013.
Save for the 2011 edition which saw the Commissioner’s Cup have a smaller import height limit, the conference format allows TNT to bring in an extra big guy which then lets its forwards to play their natural positions.
And Simon proved to be another excellent choice for the franchise. At 6-foot-9, Simon gives the Tropa a steady presence underneath, and he is a multi-tooled big man who can post up, hit short face-up jumpers, and take his opponents off the dribble from around 12 to 14 feet.
This allowed the Tropa to go big, like what they did last season when they still had Jay Washington in the roster. In their past few games, TNT paraded a line-up which featured a center, in this case Simon, plus two stretch forwards like Ranidel de Ocampo and Troy Rosario to form a supersized frontcourt.
“Malaking bagay siya, andoon ang presence niya sa loob. May pangmatch-up kami sa malalaki,” de Ocampo said of Simon, who is averaging 24.6 PPG, 17 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2 SPG, and 3.4 BPG in the conference.
Assistant coach Nash Racela added: “Malaking bagay. Si David Simon kasi, he gives us a lot of flexibility. Kaya niya maglaro sa loob at sa labas. Nabibigyan siya different looks yung kalaban. Like today, si Slaughter, he played him outside. Kapag mas maliit yung kalaban maybe he can play him inside. At least yung points of attack namin, iba-iba.”
With great complementary pieces and a championship-tested system, it was only a matter of having things figured out. After tinkering with his rotations, Uichico finally found the perfect rhythm, and TNT went on a roll.
Such a big line-up joined by tall, lengthy backcourt players exposed mismatches, since not all forwards and wing guys in the PBA are as versatile or as athletic as the two TNT forwards. Rosario would post up smaller wing guys or shoot triples. De Ocampo would lure opposing bigs outside, opening the lane even more for Simon.
With Rosario improving tremendously from three-point area as well, TNT became even more difficult to stop.
In TNT’s last five games, Rosario is shooting 53.8 percent from three-point area, while de Ocampo is firing at a 38.7-percent clip. Against Ginebra Wednesday night, Rosario finished with 22 points, including 5-for-7 from long range as he was able to draw Japeth Aguilar out of the shaded area.
“We have a lot of players that are very versatile and not every team has. We are able to work together and that is an advantage when we play well together,” Simon, who topscored with 30 points against Ginebra, said.
“Noong college pa lang, yun na ang strength niya eh. It has been an advantage kay Troy, and that is something we want to exploit dito sa PBA. And adjustment niya ngayon is more yung from four to three, but hindi ganoon kalaki struggle niya dahil hindi siya nagiging liability sa defense sa three spot,” Racela said of Rosario.
De Ocampo even believes Rosario can be his Gilas Pilipinas successor at the stretch four spot.
“Si Troy, ang daming na-shoot na three-points. Sa nakikita ko, isa sa pwedeng pumalit sa akin sa Gilas na stretch-four, si Troy talaga eh,” he said.
Simon’s presence also means other TNT bigs will not have to worry about being banged up too much since they already have a dominant center to take care of the job. The rest of the Tropa playing their natural positions would mean a lot for the team when it comes to preserving their energy entering the playoffs.
TNT has won four of its last five games, shooting 37.7 percent from three-point area in that stretch. With Simon’s stellar play, that shaky start to the conference has been reduced to a distant memory. The Tropa are now in fourth place in the team standings with a 5-4 card and Mahindra and San Miguel left in the schedule.
De Ocampo said the team is still chasing for a better position in the team standings, and they will approach the last two elimination round games with a play-off mindset.
“Tinuturing namin na parang play-offs na eh lalo na yung susunod na dalawang laro. Crucial na yung laban at nasa alanganin pa yung standing. Yun lang, itutuloy lang namin yung magandang performance namin,” de Ocampo said.
Thanks to Simon, the Tropa are back in the hunt for a crown. And that is a very doable task, given they have everything figured out.