DM Film Room: TNT’s Drop Coverage and Fajardo’s Best Game of the Series

The TNT Tropang Giga’s defense forced the San Miguel Beermen to uncomfortable situations in Game 5, but there’s no need to press the panic button as SMB tries to keep their hopes alive in the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup Semifinals.

Romeo Fajardo SMB 2021
Original photos via PBA Images

The last three games of the TNT-San Miguel semifinals series were decided by a whopping average of 21.0 points — a trend that we didn’t expect to see considering that on paper, this should have been a closely-fought battle between the top offensive team (San Miguel) and the top defensive team (TNT) in the league. Instead, the series has become a tic-tac-toe match as both teams now take turns in carving out lopsided victories. 

This duel has also been a battle of adjustments for the two powerhouse contenders. The Tropang Giga suddenly engaged in a pedal-to-the-metal offensive ploy to have the 6-foot-10 June Mar Fajardo running around all day, which the Beermen effectively countered by falling back to their 2-3 zone defense to hide their superstar big man’s limitations on that end of the floor. 

In the recently-concluded Game 5 that saw TNT wallop their counterparts via a 110-90 beating, they shot a very efficient 48% overall clip from the field, including hitting 36% of their 38 attempts from beyond the arc. The Tropang Giga also recorded an excellent 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and had six players scoring in double digits. 

On defense, TNT only had six steals as a team and forced San Miguel to 15 turnovers, a rate that is still considered relatively acceptable. But the important thing for TNT defense was that they made life uncomfortable for their opponents, and messed up with San Miguel’s offensive flow. The Beermen only accumulated 12 assists as a team in Game 5, which is far below their conference average of 19.7 (2nd in the league). 

How did the TNT defense do it and how can San Miguel adjust their offense in time for Game 6?

TNT’s drop coverage on SMB’s pick-and-roll

In guarding San Miguel’s pick-and-roll (PnR) plays, TNT always employs the drop coverage, especially when it’s Fajardo who is setting the screen. 

As you can see in this two-man game between Fajardo and Alex Cabagnot, TNT big man Kelly Williams was more than content to drop below the screen as opposed to either showing hard or switching to the ball-handler. The drop coverage is effective in preventing a direct pathway to the rim for the ball-handler (Cabagnot) and in taking away a scoring opportunity from a screener (Fajardo) in case he rolls to the rim.

However, the two scenarios that a drop coverage on a PnR will give up are the outside shot from the screener and a mid-range jumper from the ball-handler. With the lack of an outside shot in Fajardo’s game, his tendency is to always roll to the rim, which TNT’s drop coverage will prevent him from doing so. But the mid-range shot is still there for the San Miguel guards, and that was something that they didn’t capitalize on in Game 5.

Here, you would see Poy Erram dropping below the screen to take away Fajardo’s roll to the rim. But it also gave Chris Ross the opportunity to take a mid-range jumper, and with his defender (Kib Montalbo) still chasing him from behind, he has a lot of space to hit the shot. 

Look at how much space far Erram was from Ross, making it improbable for him to effectively contest the jumpshot.

But Ross wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity as his shot only hit the backboard.

This is another example of the jumpshot that a drop coverage gives up to the ball-handler. Even with Montalbo giving chase, Terrence Romeo still has enough daylight to sink the shot. 

Erram was even further away from Romeo than he was from Ross in the previous play. But Romeo focused on baiting a foul from Montalbo, which he didn’t get, causing him to lose balance and miss the shot. With good shooters like Romeo, Marcio Lassiter, and Alex Cabagnot on their lineup, the Beermen could effectively counter the Tropang Giga’s drop coverage by hitting their mid-range shots. It’s there for the taking, and San Miguel should take advantage of that opportunity in Game 6.

Get June Mar away from the high post

One of the keys to neutralizing Fajardo is to push him away from the basket, preventing him from sealing deep in the post. But that’s easier said than done as Fajardo is too big and heavy, and he knows how to position himself for a deep catch near the paint. However, there were multiple instances in Game 5 that San Miguel did a favor to TNT when they fed Fajardo the ball too far from the rim.

Fajardo can’t do anything out there when he is that far from the paint. By the time that he got rid of the ball, the Beermen already burned half of their shot clock. There were lots of standing around in this set, and nothing was happening. It eventually led to an Arwind Santos isolation at the right wing, which was probably an acceptable idea ten years ago. 

San Miguel has never been that good at off-ball movements and actions when they are in a half-court set. It’s doubtful that they have the time and the willingness to improve on that before tomorrow’s Game 6, so they just have to go back to their proven bread-and-butter play — making quick and crisp post entry passes to Fajardo.

When Fajardo seals his man near the paint, it becomes a pick-your-poison scenario for the defense. In the clip above, Fajardo effectively used a pass fake that delayed a double- or triple-team from the Tropang Giga. Erram or any other big man in this series doesn’t have the chops to defend the six-time Most Valuable Player on a single coverage.

This is another example of a good entry pass to Fajardo. TNT’s collapsing defense was forgettable here as Fajardo was already a step near the rim when Montalbo came over. As soon as Fajardo makes his first action in backing down his defender, the Tropang Giga have to immediately gang up on the San Miguel star center or pay the price of giving up two easy points.

“How about an off-balanced jumper off the wrong foot, just for fun? ” – June Mar, probably.  

As they don’t have much movement going on in their half-court sets, the key here for the Beermen is to pound the ball to Fajardo at the post. If multiple defenders collapse on him, then they hope that Fajardo dishes out a kick-out pass at the right time as it is certain that if they quickly swing the ball, they will eventually find a wide-open teammate.

Fajardo was one of the few bright spots for San Miguel in Game 5, as he finished with 23 points on a stellar 61% shooting and trooped to the foul line 11 times. His combination of aggressiveness and efficiency forced TNT to always collapse on him at the post, which in turn gave San Miguel’s shooters the opportunity to capitalize. However, the outside shooting was not there for the Beermen as they only hit four of their 25 attempts (16%) from deep. 

While it’s true that San Miguel came up with their conference-low output in assists in the last timeout, there are no big issues for their offense heading into Game 6. Along with putting Fajardo in scoring position near the paint, a couple more hits from mid-range and an improved efficiency from the three-point line will do the trick for the Beermen’s offense. If anything, their defense needed more attention as they looked slow and lethargic, and TNT tried to outrun them in almost every opportunity. 

Advanced Stats are now available for Philippine basketball! Through Ryan Alba’s ‘Stats by Ryan’, you can now look at team and player advanced stats for the current 2021 PBA Philippine Cup (and the previous three seasons) via the Dribble Media website.

Check out this glossary for a list of the basketball advanced stats terminologies.

You can also contact Ryan via his Twitter handle (@_alba__).

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