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SMB inspired to retain crown

San Miguel Beer coach Leo Austria

San Miguel Beer coach Leo Austria said yesterday he expects a chess match against Barangay Ginebra in their best-of-five PBA Governors Cup semifinal series and wouldn’t be surprised if the showdown goes the distance.

If their elimination encounter is any indication, Austria could be right. Last Aug. 14, defending champion San Miguel beat Ginebra, 111-105, in double overtime with original import Arizona Reid compiling 26 points. Reid left the lineup after six games and was replaced by Mike Singletary on an interim basis before Elijah Millsap came to lead San Miguel to back-to-back wins heading into the semifinals.

“AZ didn’t want to risk tearing his Achilles tendon which was swollen,” said Austria. “We told him we’re willing to wait for him to recover but he couldn’t commit so we decided to do Plan B. We brought in Mike on a temporary basis while Elijah finished up his commitments in the US. Elijah was hoping to get back in the NBA with San Antonio. Five of our players in the active lineup were his teammates when Elijah took Petron to the 2013 Governors Cup finals and they kept tweeting him to come back. When he finally showed up, we gave him a warm welcome. He’s a hard worker and an inspiring motivator. With Elijah, we have an import who can play one, two, three or four on both ends. He can bring the ball up, play inside or the perimeter. Our guys are hungry to win. If our teams were in different brackets, we both could’ve ended up playing in the finals.”

Austria said the first two games of the series will be critical. “This could go five games,” he said. “It’s important to win Game 1 because that will set the tone since it’s a short series. Ginebra is definitely a contender and during the eliminations, nearly went to No. 1. Coach Tim (Cone) has transformed Ginebra into a winning team again. The players are embracing coach Tim’s system. Coach Tim is a brilliant tactician and knows how to get his players to work together. He’s calling us the team to beat but that’s just his style of trying to be the underdog. The only way we can beat Ginebra is to play as one.” Game 1 is scheduled at the Smart Araneta Coliseum at 7 tonight.

Austria said Ginebra import Justin Brownlee is a big reason why the Barangay is back in the semifinals after a seven-conference absence. “He’s a quiet import who brings up the level of confidence of his teammates,” said Austria. “Maybe, Elijah and Brownlee will neutralize each other. They’re imports who play with pride. Off the court, they’re friends but on the court, they’re dead serious to win. It won’t just be imports deciding the series. The locals must be involved, too. Our advantage is JuneMar (Fajardo) although I’m sure Japeth (Aguilar) will try to make it a little difficult for him to score inside. I expect Sol (Mercado) to defend Elijah and if that happens, Elijah will find the right spot on the court to take advantage of their matchup.”

Austria said Arwind Santos’ return from sick bay has been a huge plus. With Santos in the lineup, San Miguel is 6-2. “Arwind is always a threat,” said Austria. “He makes an impact on offense and defense. When he’s on top of the key, we like to run the high-low with JuneMar. He creates space for JuneMar and Elijah to operate. He spreads the defense. In the quarterfinals, his block on Henry Walker was crucial. We might use him against Brownlee.”

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Another option for Austria is to assign Chris Ross on Brownlee. Against NLEX in the quarterfinals, Ross volunteered to take Walker. “Chris doesn’t mind defending bigger imports if they play outside but once they move to the post, that’s when we double,” he said. “Against Meralco, Chris defended Allen Durham. Chris is our all-purpose utility guy. Maybe, against Ginebra, we’ll put him on L. A. (Tenorio) who’s their barometer. L. A. dictates the tempo for Ginebra and we need to stop him.”

Austria said he’s bracing for Ginebra to unleash its backcourt trio of Tenorio, Mercado and Scottie Thompson. “They’re responsible for much of their success,” he said. “Thompson is their best local rebounder. Then there’s also Mark Caguioa whom I think is still capable of being a major contributor. It’s a challenge for our guys to stop them.”

Austria said Marcio Lassiter broke out of a four-game slump to hit 14 against NLEX last Friday and it’s a positive sign moving forward. “Marcio is an ideal two guard,” he said. “It’s tough for Marcio to play three because other teams have bigger threes like Troy Rosario and Calvin Abueva. Then, we’ve got Elijah who plays three. Arwind sometimes plays three but is more comfortable at four. Now that it’s playoff time, I’m sure Marcio will step up. He’s excited because Elijah’s an excellent passer. If you’re open, Elijah will get you the ball.”

Austria said Asian import Mahmoud Abdeen will be counted on for depth at the point guard position and Gary David is still strengthening his knee that was banged up in a recent game against TNT. David has missed the last three games because of a swollen knee. Chris Lutz, recovering from a hip injury, is out for the conference.

Millsap played with current teammates Alex Cabagnot, Fajardo, Lassiter, Santos and Ronald Tubid when Petron lost to San Mig Coffee in the 2013 Governors Cup best-of-seven finals that went the full route. Cone was then San Mig’s coach while the Petron coach was Gee Abanilla, now San Miguel’s team manager. So it may not be just Millsap with an axe to grind against Cone but also Abanilla. In a chess match, the key is outsmarting the opponent on the way to a checkmate. Austria and Cone are two of the best chess players in PBA coaching today.

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