MANILA, Philippines -- In his return to the PBA for the first time in nearly a decade, TNT coach Chot Reyes didn't seem to miss a beat.
He steered the Tropang GIGA to the best record in the elimination round of the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup, with a loss to San Miguel Beer their lone blemish in 11 games.
In the quarterfinals, they dethroned defending champion Barangay Ginebra, and in the semis, they avenged their defeat to SMB in a seven-game series.
Now, it is on to the Finals for the Tropang GIGA -- a situation that didn't exactly come as a surprise for Reyes.
"Yes, and no," said Reyes, when asked if he was surprised to have reached the Finals in his first conference back with the Tropang GIGA.
Reyes last coached in the PBA in 2012 with TNT, stepping down in order to focus on his duties with the Philippine national team. Before he was appointed as head coach of the Tropang GIGA in February, he had been on a coaching hiatus since 2018.
"Yes, because I really didn't expect that we would get through this series. Not because I did not have faith in my team, but because we didn't have all our players. So in that sense, yes [it was a surprise]," he added.
TNT was not at full strength in the semifinals, with starting center Kelly Williams having to sit out their first four games due to the league's health and safety protocols. Their back-up center, Poy Erram, suffered a fractured cheekbone in Game 4 and had to play in a protective mask the rest of the way.
Yet Reyes also acknowledged that reaching the Finals was something they already envisioned before the conference even started.
"In our very, very first team meeting, when we were going through all our team development stuff, preseason, and all that, we had pictured ourselves already here, in the Finals," he said.
"I say that with all humility, because I think if you want to get to a certain place, you have to see yourself there first, right? It's hard to get to some place if you don't see where you're going," he explained. "So, we had to paint this picture for the players, to see it clearly."
"And then, we said, 'Okay, now you can see the picture. Now what do we need to do to get there?'"
To "get there," as Reyes said, TNT had to do one thing -- to get better, constantly. It was a mantra that Reyes repeated, over and over, throughout the conference, even as their wins piled up and it became clear that the Tropang GIGA was emerging as the favorites to win the All-Filipino crown.
"Kung mapapansin niyo, lahat kayo ang dami niyong tinatanong sa akin palagi, 'What are your chances for the next game?' And sagot ko sa inyo palagi, we just want to be better, we just want to be better, we just want to be better," said Reyes.
"Parang sirang plaka na nga ako," he quipped. "[But] it's really that kind of mindset in us. We just want to constantly challenge ourselves to get better."
The Tropang GIGA reached the finals behind a strong defense and solid contributions on offense across the board. In the eliminations, it was rookie Mikey Williams who shone for them, averaging 18.4 points per game while Jayson Castro willingly took a backseat.
In the semis, when Williams struggled, Castro took over. And in the deciding Game 7, it was swingman Roger Pogoy who played his finest game of the season to push the Tropang GIGA past the finish line.
They will now bring that same mindset and same approach to the Finals, where the Magnolia Hotshots await them. Magnolia has been equally impressive in the conference, with Calvin Abueva seamlessly fitting in after a blockbuster offseason trade and making an already loaded team all the more dangerous.
"I wish I could be happier," Reyes said of reaching the championship round in just his very first conference back in the PBA. "But I know that there's still a huge job in front of us."
"There's a feeling of relief, for certain, that we got by such a huge, strong team like San Miguel. But there's also the feeling of, you know, that we are still far from over, that the job is only half done," he added.
"But at least, we got there. Now we gotta figure out how to play and compete against this tough Magnolia squad."
Game 1 is set on Wednesday, still at the Don Honorio Ventura State University Gym in Bacolor, Pampanga where the PBA has held its "semi-bubble" since resuming games in late August.
"In the finals, that's exactly how we are going to approach it -- how can we be better in the finals than we were in the semifinals," said Reyes. "That's our approach."