MANILA, Philippines -- That Barangay Ginebra emerged as champions of the 2021 PBA Governors' Cup is "a little bit shocking" for their head coach, Tim Cone.
"We were so far down at one point," he recalled. "We had really reached the bottom of the barrel. There was a point where I didn't think we were gonna emerge and make a statement this conference."
The Gin Kings elevated their game in the playoffs, culminating in a six-game conquest of the Meralco Bolts in the finals. A 103-92 win in Game 6 gave them their fourth Governors' Cup title in the last five editions of the tournament.
Cone now has 24 championships to his name.
Yet as Cone pointed out, their road to the crown was less than straightforward. There was a point in the elimination round that the Gin Kings were at risk of missing the playoffs.
A brutal four-game slump midway through the elims had Ginebra at 3-4, putting them in the bottom third of the league table. Even more crucial was that they lost to Magnolia, Meralco, TNT and San Miguel Beer -- all playoff teams -- in succession.
It marked the first time that the Gin Kings dropped four consecutive games under Cone's watch.
Ginebra righted the ship by winning three of their last four assignments, punching a playoff ticket as the sixth seed. Their reward was a quarterfinals match-up against the third-seeded Tropang GIGA, who had a twice-to-beat advantage.
Pouncing on TNT's import woes, Ginebra ousted the Tropang GIGA in two games, then moved on to take down NLEX in four games in the semifinals. Against the Bolts in the championship series, they recovered from a 1-2 deficit, winning the last three games in front of record crowds.
As he recalled their journey to the title, Cone said plenty of credit must go to Ginebra's veterans, who kept the team together during their struggles in the elimination round.
"We have a very veteran team. We have great veteran leadership, and the leadership really stepped up," he said. "I remember them talking about it, and then we would start practicing, and the guys, the leaders, actually, lifted the level of their play in practice."
"Everybody started to follow, and suddenly we were playing better basketball, and it led to this point and to this championship. So gotta give credit to the leadership on the team," he added. "These guys know how to pull themselves out."
LA Tenorio, in particular, was crucial to their recovery -- not just in the elimination round but also in the finals. It was Tenorio who kept Ginebra afloat in Game 6, after Meralco's defense limited import Justin Brownlee to just two points in the first half. He finished with a conference-high 30 points in the game, drilling a dagger three pointer in the clutch to hold off the Bolts.
"When I was talking about our leaders earlier, he's primarily our leader," Cone said of Tenorio. "He was the guy who was talking and getting us going again."
Another crucial factor to Ginebra's comeback? Their fans.
With the PBA opening up to live audiences again, thousands of fans seized the opportunity to watch their teams for the first time in nearly two years. The Gin Kings once again enjoyed the support of the "barangay," who poured in two years' worth of energy and cheers into their playoff run.
Those fans kept the Gin Kings going after their elimination round slump, and fueled them to an upset of the Tropang GIGA in the elimination round. Cone admitted afterward that had their four-game slide happened in the "bubble," he can't guarantee that Ginebra would have broken out of it.
"I think if this had happened to us in the bubble, when we had that bad start or that bad middle, we wouldn't have been able to overcome [it]," he said.
"But as we started playing better basketball, the fans started going crazy. And that just lifted us up and kept us moving forward," he added. "Without the fans, I don't think we would have been able to make this comeback into this conference and do well in the playoffs."
"Especially the quarterfinals. To me, to me the key was the quarterfinals... That gave us the confidence to get to where we are now."
The PBA set attendance records in the pandemic era during the finals, with Game 6 attracting 20,224 fans -- majority of whom were pro-Ginebra -- to the Mall of Asia Arena.
As influential as the fans were, however, ultimately it was the Ginebra players that had to execute and perform on the floor. Several players stepped up for Cone -- Tenorio led them in scoring in Game 6, and players like Jeff Chan and Arvin Tolentino had their moments. Scottie Thompson earned Finals MVP honors after a sensational series which included a near-triple-double in Game 5.
But the difference-maker, said Cone, was Brownlee.
The 34-year-old import wasn't at his best in the elimination round, as he worked his way back into shape after nearly two years off due to the pandemic. By the time the finals rolled around, he was in peak form, and the Bolts had very few answers for him. Brownlee averaged 28.83 points, 13.17 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.83 blocks, and 1.5 steals in the six-game series, while shooting 53.7% from the field.
"The difference between us and Meralco, over the last four years, the difference between me and Norman [Black] over the last four years, in winning these championships, honestly, is that I have, we have Justin Brownlee," said Cone. "That's the bottom line."
"If Justin was on the other side of the floor, I'd think we'd have a really hard time. But we'd been blessed to have Justin all this time, and that's been the difference for us," he added.