Another blockbuster PBA opening
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson () - February 17, 2011 - 12:00am

The PBA inaugurated its 36th season with a barn-burner featuring Meralco against Barangay Ginebra in a Philippine Cup duel at the Araneta Coliseum last October. What made the game extra exciting was it was the only meeting between the two clubs in the conference so there was no tomorrow. As it turned out, Meralco barely beat the Kings, 73-72.

To open the second conference, commissioner Chito Salud thought of a repeat performance – Meralco against Ginebra in Laoag City tomorrow. Why not? With the single-round elimination format, both teams won’t meet again unless they tangle in the playoffs down the road.

The conference called the Commissioner’s Cup will be short and sweet with a lot of thrilling elements. Each of the nine PBA teams will be reinforced by an import standing no more than 6-4. The 10th PBA franchise, Barako Bull, has taken a leave of absence and its spot in the conference was given to Smart Gilas which will be bannered by 6-10 naturalization candidate Marcus Douthit of Providence College. Player transfers were frenetic during the offseason with Meralco, for instance, giving up Beau Belga, Hans Thiele and Paolo Bugia to bring in Sol Mercado, Reynel Hugnatan, Ren-Ren Ritualo and Erick Rodriguez. Other teams that undertook varying degrees of facelifts were Powerade (Celino Cruz, J. R. Quinahan), Air21 (Jay-R Reyes, Reed Juntilla), Rain Or Shine (Beau Belga, Ronjay Buenafe, Ronnie Matias), B-Meg (Pong Escobal) and Alaska (Don Dulay, Thiele, Bugia). 

Kerby Raymundo’s return early next month will be a big boost to the Derby Ace Llamados’ campaign. 

Gilas will be in it to win it, according to Serbian coach Rajko Toroman. The national team will compete for the championship and Toroman is taking the challenge head-on. Borgie Hermida, formerly of Barako, was added to the Gilas lineup which lists Chris Tiu, Mark Barroca, Japeth Aguilar, Aldrech Ramos, J. V. Casio, Dylan Ababou, Marcio Lassiter, Chris Lutz, Jason Ballesteros, Mac Baracael, Greg Slaughter and Douthit.

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For tomorrow’s game, Ginebra coach Joseph Uichico said it’s unlikely that guards Jay-Jay Helterbrand and Mike Cortez will play as both are recovering from injuries. But everyone else appears to be healthy, including Eric Menk and Mark Caguioa. Rudy Hatfield is back to infuse much-needed energy in the Kings’ game.

Meralco, on the other hand, is showing up in full force. “Tony Danridge is ready to play,” said Bolts coach Ryan Gregorio. “He had a minor grade 1 hamstring injury which has already healed completely. We just made a move to strengthen our interior defense. We traded Thiele and Bugia for Hugnatan. Hopefully, we can compete against the big teams in the league.”

Meralco has made dramatic lineup changes since breaking into the PBA last conference. The Bolts traded Marlou Aquino to Barako then got him back. They moved out Escobal, Dennis Daa and Belga. During the Philippine Cup, Meralco took in Mark Isip, Thiele and Juntilla only to later deal away Thiele and Juntilla. All the wheeling and dealing netted the Bolts a bumper crop of fresh recruits in Mercado, Ritualo, Rodriguez and Hugnatan.

Against Ginebra, it’s important for Gregorio to keep things simple because Meralco is still a work in progress. It will take some time for the new players to jell with the holdovers. Last conference, the Bolts were second in the league in most turnovers so they’ve got to be more careful with their possessions. Mercado is expected to play major minutes while Ritualo, Rodriguez and Hugnatan are tipped for critical back-up roles so how quickly Gregorio is able to put together a fluid combination will be a factor in determining the Bolts’ competitiveness.

Danridge will probably play the three-spot – a headache for Uichico because Ginebra likes to use a three-guard formation with Ronald Tubid at small forward. The problem is Tubid will be mismatched against Danridge. Uichico might use Hatfield or Willy Wilson to slide down from four to three for the match-up against Danridge, compromising the Kings’ small-ball approach. 

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Ginebra’s import Nate Brumfield is a 240-pounder who’s supposed to be an immovable force at the low block. Obviously, Danridge won’t match up against Brumfield but Gregorio has the luxury of deploying a formidable post defender in Asi Taulava. Hugnatan could also provide help in the interior.

Uichico will resist the temptation of making Brumfield his primary offensive option. He’ll want to be a bit unpredictable. Besides, Ginebra generates most of its offense from the backcourt with Caguioa, Willie Miller, Tubid and Helterbrand (if he’s healthy) on the firing end. Brumfield is no stranger to double and triple teams – he was Oklahoma Baptist’s key scorer throughout his NAIA career. So it won’t be a baptism of fire for Brumfield if opposing teams gang up on him. His ability to spot open teammates for kick-outs and cuts will be tested, no doubt.

Ginebra was the PBA’s top defensive team last conference, giving up 83.1 points an outing. Uichico will want to uphold that reputation. The Bolts won’t look to big men for points – they’ll go with Danridge, Mercado, Mac-Mac Cardona and Ritualo shooting jumpers or slashing to the hole. So a backcourt shootout could be in the offing in Laoag.

For Meralco to win, the Bolts must avoid turnovers, control the boards and load up on Danridge to exploit the mismatch. For Ginebra to win, the Kings must establish Brumfield’s post offense, clog the lane to prevent penetrations and put-backs and play with aggression, not regression, meaning they’ve got to be on attack mode from start to finish to put pressure on Meralco.

It should be another humdinger of a conference opener.

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