Rookie Pogoy shows valor of a veteran in Finals Game 1

MANILA, Philippines – RR Pogoy sized up his defender Ronald Tubid on the left wing, right in front of TNT KaTropa's bench early in the fourth quarter. He moved to his right, dribbling forward, Tubid caught up in the web Pogoy spun.

As Pogoy's body leaned forward, the trap was set, Tubid lost control of his footing and fell for it. Tubid stumbled backward as Pogoy stepped back off a crossover and pulled up for a 3-pointer.

Some TNT players were on their feet, both hands raised upwards, while the crowd had already cheered their approval of the move, all before Pogoy could even complete his follow-through. They were rewarded when the triple rattled home with authority.

The rookie has arrived.

Pogoy made everyone forget he was a rookie when he showed up with the valor of a veteran in his PBA Finals debut, a 104-102 Game 1 victory over the San Miguel Beermen during the 2017 PBA Commissioner's Cup.

He emphatically announced his entry to the tune of a career-high 27 points, 5-of-9 shooting from deep, 5 rebounds, and 3 steals.

"I'm happy that it's only my first [PBA Finals] game but I was already Best Player, and I shot well from the 3-point line," Pogoy told reporters in Filipino.

The former Far Eastern University standout did not appear to have any of the usual jitters that debutants in the finals experience, playing almost 35 minutes as a starter under his old Tamaraws coach Nash Racela.

He said his confidence comes from Racela and his veteran teammates, all of whom encouraged him to take the shot if he's open.

Playmaker Jayson Castro, in particular, offered wisdom not only to Pogoy but to the rest of TNT's finals first-timers that included Troy Rosario, Mo Tautuaa, and Anthony Semerad, among others.

"We told them to just enjoy the game," shared Castro in Filipino. "Then embrace the pressure because obviously there's pressure since it's their first time, but that turned out to be a good thing. We told them they should channel that pressure into an opportunity to show what they can do in the finals."

The KaTropa are at a disadvantage against the Beermen where championship experience is concerned.

San Miguel has won 4 titles in the past couple of years, including a Philippine Cup Grand Slam, plus the highly valuable experience of being the only team in league history to rally from a 0-3 deficit and win a title.

By contrast, TNT's last finals appearance and title was in the 2015 edition of this conference. And they didn't have this core yet, not even Racela.

But TNT came out with a force in Game 1, throwing off San Miguel with active hands and high levels of energy to pump up the defense, which forced a number of errant passes between Beermen that broke up their plays. As a result, the KaTropa collected 27 points from their opponent's 23 turnovers.

TNT withstood a 21-point first quarter barrage from import Charles Rhodes but remained a step quicker and controlled the pace of the game for the most part, forcing the Beermen to just 6-of-29 shooting from 3. They also held the edge in bench points as expected, 46-18.

Pogoy's offensive explosion was exactly what TNT needed to complement its defense and to capitalize on San Miguel's shooting woes. But it still wasn't his most valuable contribution to the team in Game 1, at least not in the eyes of Racela.

"I really don’t focus on those things (points). To me I think what I got from Roger [in Game 1] were the normal things that we were getting all along," noted Racela, who won a title with Pogoy in the UAAP two years ago.

"Maybe it was extra special because he scored a lot. But again, his defense was crucial and that’s something that we always require of him. I think he was just blessed today to hit 3-pointers. That’s something that is part of his arsenal."

Racela had a valid point. Pogoy's impact in Game 1 was felt way beyond the points he racked up. TNT outscored San Miguel by 20 when Pogoy was on the floor, as he topped the plus-minus category not just among his teammates but also across the Beermen. (Tautuaa, another finals rookie, likewise had a commendable plus-11 in 18 minutes.)

Pogoy held his own on the defensive end in the crucial last two minutes when the Beermen went on a rally to tie the game 3 times, before import Josh Smith bailed the KaTropa out with a hook shot that trickled in virtually at the buzzer.

The Gilas cadet admitted the defense sagged on him, giving him enough room and confidence to look for his shots. But expect him to be defended well come Game 2 on Friday, June 23.

"This is only Game 1," he rightfully noted. "The series is far from over." –