Defense key to Star's romp into semifinals, says Pingris

MANILA, Philippines – When coach Chito Victolero got hold of the Star Hotshots, one of his primary objectives was to make a strong defensive team out of them. As the semifinals loom, Star has become just that.

The Hotshots are through to the 2017 PBA Philippine Cup semifinals and riding on a 6-game win streak where they showcased their most dominant form so far under Victolero and in the new Paul Lee era sans James Yap.

Marc Pingris, one of the remaining veterans from the 2014 Grand Slam franchise, attributed their rise to buying into Victolero's defensive system and staying true to that during games.

"Kaya nandito kami ngayon sa semis dahil sa defense namin. Ganoon kami ka-confident, na bumabalik 'yung dati naming team dahil sa defense namin," Pingris said after they swept the Phoenix Fuel Masters on Monday, February 6.

(We're in the semis because of our defense. We're becoming confident that our old team is coming back because of our defense.)

True enough, the Hotshots are the second best defensive team in the league right now, next to rival Barangay Ginebra San Miguel.

In the eliminations, where they finished as third seed with a 7-4 slate, they listed a defensive rating of 91.6, per Humble Bola stats. Star also has the second fewest points allowed in the league with an average of 86.09 points per game, according to statistics from PBA statistician Fidel Mangonon III.

Pingris, who has been with the franchise since 2009, noted there are parallels to what Victolero is doing now and what former head coach Tim Cone did when he led them to the Grand Slam.

"Si Coach Chito at Coach Tim, defensive coaches sila. Iisa ang style nila," Pingris explained.

"Sinasabi sa amin ni Coach Chito na kung gusto namin na makuha 'yung panalo, kailangan naming dumepensa. 'Yun din ang sinasabi ni Coach Tim, na kung gusto namin makapunta ng finals, kailangan naming dumepensa. So parang same (style)."

(Coach Chito and Coach Tim are defensive coaches. They have the same style. Coach Chito always tells us that if we want to win we have to defend. That's also what Coach Tim said, that if we want to reach the finals, we have to play defense. It's the same style.)

Star's impressive defensive job is evident in their 33.75 average winning margin in their last 4 games dating back to the eliminations, which included a 47-point beating of Meralco that turned out to be the largest winning margin of the conference so far.

In those last 4 games (against Mahindra, Meralco, and twice against Phoenix in the quarters), the Hotshots did not allow their opponents more than 87 points, and twice held foes to under 74 points.

"Sa amin, kahit sino ang makalaban, kailangan dagdagan pa rin ang defense," said Pingris, who had 16 points and 9 rebounds on Monday. "Wala siyang (Victolero) pakialam kung nakukulitan kami sa kanya, basta defense lang. 'Wala akong pakialam sa offense basta dumepensa kayo.'"

(Whoever we face, we have to keep on defending. He doesn't care if we're annoyed by him, as long as we defend. He says he doesn't care about offense, but as long as we have defense.)

Lee, who paced Star with 17 points and 9 assists on Monday, echoed Pingris.

"'Pag maganda depensa namin 'yung opensa namin gumaganda e. 'Di naman namin sinasadya na ganun 'yung mangyari pero 'pag nakaka-stop kami we're having fun e," Lee observed.

"'Pag dumipensa kami, malayo 'yung mararating namin. Ang maganda lang kasi rito e nananalo kami dahil sa defense. 'Yun 'yung mentality namin eh. So siguro every game 'di naman kami magiging kumpiyansa kasi kailangan naming dumipensa para manalo kami."

(When we play good defense our offense follows through. We don't exactly do that on purpose but that's what happens and when we get a stop we're having fun. If we defend, we will go far. The good thing is we're winning because of our defense. That's our mentality. So every game we won't be too complacent because we know we have to defend in order to win.)

That Star is in the semis is also a product of burgeoning chemistry in a young roster sprinkled with veterans.

"Very happy kasi we commit to each other," said Lee. "Goal namin from the start is chemistry namin, buti nag-commit kami sa gusto mangyari ni Coach Chito."

(We're very happy because we commit to each other. Our goal from the start is our chemistry, it's a good thing we all committed to what Coach Chito wanted.)

This is the Hotshots' first semifinals appearance since the 2015 Governors' Cup, when Cone was still head coach. They will face either the Alaska Aces or Ginebra in a best-of-7 series.

It's been a quick turnaround for Star despite the transition to a new coach and relatively new players. But they believe everything is coming together for them at this point in the conference.

"Happy kami na nakabalik kami. Deserve naman namin 'yun kasi pinaghirapan talaga namin. Gutom talaga kami makapasok," said Pingris.

"Nagpapasalamat din kami kay Coach sa patience na ginawa niya. Kailangan paghandaan pa namin. Happy kami pero kaunti pa, mas masaya 'pag finals."

(We're happy to be back. We deserve this because we worked hard for it. We really wanted to get through. We're thankful to Coach also for his patience. But we need to prepare. We're happy but we can go further, it's better if we reach the finals.) –