How La Salle got here:
La Salle started out the season slow, losing to the UP Fighting Maroons during the early goings of the season, and teams like FEU, NU and Adamson pushing them to the brink. This wasn’t the same, dominant La Salle that we knew from last season, even though they had a Ben Mbala who could now shoot threes now. Eventually, they realized: let’s not even bother forcing our best player to shoot threes. He gets easy baskets down low, and him banging down with other big ben down low makes life easier for everyone.
How they embraced that realization finally showed during their Round 2 match-up with Ateneo, as they established themselves as favorites once again by making Ateneo look vulnerable. The Adamson Soaring Falcons gave them a scare in their Final Four tiff, but by remaining aggressive and attacking the basket every time there was a chance, they to made a comeback to book a ticket back to the Finals. There’s no denying that La Salle’s aggressiveness and willingness to attack the rim has resulted in only good things for them as a team.
Key Question: Can La Salle’s guards be consistent in an entire series against Ateneo?
When it has come to games against Ateneo, two names have come up as the most consistent when it comes to providing production: Ricci Rivero and Ben Mbala. Santi Santillan has his moments, but it’s Mbala and the younger Rivero who have consistently put up production against the Blue Eagles.
There are three names who have noticeably gone absent in the two meetings between the rivals: Kib Montalbo, Aljun Melecio and Andrei Caracut. During their first round meeting, Caracut and Montalbo (Melecio was still nursing dengue) combined for just eight points, while in their second round clash, the three guards combined for just 12 points, with Caracut going scoreless. Montalbo had his moments in both games, but that doesn’t remove the fact that La Salle’s three guards haven’t been consistent in the rivalry games this season.
The very least that Caracut, Montalbo and Melecio can do is to stay focused. In their second round clash, Caracut was clearly out of it as Anton Asistio managed to get into his head with some veteran moves. Just getting to stay in focus is already a huge thing for La Salle’s attack. This can result in smarter rotations and close-outs in the defensive end, and being in the game to help offensively is a big help to Rivero and Mbala already.
Mbala and Rivero will definitely get theirs, while La Salle’s three guards in Caracut, Montalbo and Melecio are seen as key cogs in La Salle’s attack. But the players who will be most key in this series are both Santi Santillan and Abu Tratter.
There is no doubt about that the Ateneo defense will be setting their eyes on Mbala, whether they decide to completely commit a double-team defense on him or not. But the mere presence of Ben opens up opportunities for guys like Santillan and Tratter to get theirs down low.
Santillan is particularly good at this, as his effort to continuously jump and grab rebounds has resulted in additional possessions and even points for the Green Archers. When it comes to Tratter, it’s a completely different story. He doesn’t possess the same effort and motor as Santillan. But when used properly and locked in, Tratter can be someone who can be very valuable for the La Salle. In the final minutes of their second round match-up, Tratter was used to pressure the Ateneo ball handlers. That helped them come back from a deficit late in the game.
The Green Archers are loaded up front. They should use this to their advantage, and ultimately, it’s Santillan and Tratter who will be key. They don’t need to put up 20 points to be productive. But helping the team with offensive rebounding and defense could be the difference in a tight game.
Coach Aldin Ayo loves to run a Golden State-esque type of system, but with a player like Mbala in his team, he’s had to revert to a slower type of offense to cater to his star. Don’t consider this as incompetence on the side of Coach Ayo. It showcases his excellence as a coach. He’s malleable and open to using different ideas for his team.
This definitely showed during the latter part of the season, as he used various line-ups versus teams. He’s experimented with a jumbo-lineup with Mbala-Tratter-Santillan. There have been instances where going small is the route to go for Green Archers with four guards and Mbala out on the floor.
Coach Tab Baldwin is one tough cookie to crack, so expect Coach Ayo to try and bring out every card that he has versus Ateneo. He has the talent on his roster. It’s all about to finding the right combinations to counter what the Blue Eagles are doing.