Destined for a Grand Slam
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - July 11, 2014 - 12:00am

It’s not easy to bag a Grand Slam in the PBA. Before this season, only four teams and three franchises had accomplished the feat – Crispa with Baby Dalupan in 1976, Crispa with Tommy Manotoc in 1983, San Miguel Beer with Norman Black in 1989 and Alaska with Tim Cone in 1996.

Eight teams fell short of a Grand Slam after winning two conference titles. They were Toyota with Dante Silverio in 1975, Crispa with Dalupan in 1977, Great Taste with Dalupan in 1985, Tanduay with Turo Valenzona in 1986, Sunkist with Derick Pumaren in 1995, Alaska with Cone in 1998, Barangay Ginebra with Siot Tanquingcen in 2004-05 and Talk ‘N’ Text with Chot Reyes in 2010-11.

So when Cone became the only PBA coach to win two Grand Slams the other night, there was reason to celebrate. Cone, 56, piloted San Mig Coffee to a 92-89 win over Rain Or Shine in Game 5 of the best-of-five finals to capture the PBA Governors Cup title before 23,234 fans at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. In the process, the Mixers clinched the Grand Slam after previously claiming the Philippine Cup and Commissioner’s Cup this season.

The road to the top was arduous. In the first conference, the Mixers got off to a 0-3 start and won only once in their first six outings with the victory coming in double extension over Air21. But San Mig Coffee hung in there to win its last four games in the eliminations then ousted Talk ‘N’ Text, 2-1, in the best-of-three quarterfinals, disposed of Barangay Ginebra in Game 7 of a best-of-seven series in the semifinals and stormed back from a 0-1 deficit to beat Rain Or Shine in Game 6 of another best-of-seven series in the finals.

In the Commissioner’s Cup, the Mixers were only 4-5 in the eliminations and lost Game 1 in the best-of-three quarterfinals to Alaska but rebounded to defeat the Aces twice in a row. San Mig Coffee went the full route in the best-of-five semifinals to outlast Air21 then took care of Talk ‘N’ Text in the best-of-five finals that went four games.

* * * *

There was pressure on the Mixers to win the Governors Cup because they were only a jewel short of a Grand Slam. Cone tweaked his lineup a bit by acquiring Ronnie Matias and Yousef Taha and just before the semifinals, added Jason Webb to his coaching staff. Allein Maliksi rejoined the Mixers after sitting out the Philippine Cup and Commissioner’s Cup to recover from an ACL injury.

San Mig Coffee went through the wringer in the semifinals and finals as both best-of-five series were stretched to the limit. Two of the five semifinal games against Talk ‘N’ Text were settled in overtime and the spread in Game 5 was only six points. In the finals, one game went to overtime and the margin of difference in Game 5 was only three points.

In Game 5 last Wednesday, the Elasto Painters came back from 16 down in the third period to cut the gap to just one in the fourth. They had five three-point attempts to knot the count but couldn’t convert. Neither team scored in the last 1:38 as the Mixers muffed four free throws in that stretch. Arizona Reid missed two treys, Paul Lee also two and Jeff Chan one as the Painters desperately looked for the equalizer.

In the last play, Mark Barroca fronted Reid who took the inbounds pass with less than three seconds left. Marqus Blakely closed out to help Barroca in distracting Reid who had no clear look in throwing up a prayer. Barroca went to Reid on the switch so that in case of another switch, it would be Blakely on top of the Painters import. If Blakely was Reid’s defender from the inbounds, the Painters could run a pick with Chan and leave Barroca to defend the import. It would be easier for Reid to shoot a three over Barroca than Blakely. The defensive trick worked like a charm.

As in the case of the first four games, execution on both ends settled the issue. The only statistic as a common denominator for all five game winners was field goal percentage, reflecting the efficiency in getting the job done in offense and defense. In Game 5, the Mixers shot 45.3 percent from the floor and held the Painters to 33.7 percent.

* * * *

San Mig Coffee knew that Rain Or Shine relied heavily on the three-point shot so the Mixers made sure they closed out to challenge every three. Entering Game 5, the Painters averaged 9.5 makes from beyond the arc. In Game 5, they shot only 6-of-30. Joe de Vance, the X-factor, delivered 11 points, the most in any game of the series, and eight rebounds in a crucial role. San Mig Coffee had 20 turnovers to only 11 for Rain Or Shine but the Mixers negated the disadvantage by outrebounding the Painters, 55-47. Rain Or Shine kept it close with coach Yeng Guiao’s bench contributing 34 points. But Cone, shortening his rotation, got a load from his starters. James Yap hit 29 points in 38 minutes, Blakely 20 with 16 rebounds and eight dimes in 42, De Vance 11 in 39, Marc Pingris 10 with 11 boards in 32 and P. J. Simon 10 in 28.

Down the stretch, Rain Or Shine couldn’t buy a triple. Lee and Gabe Norwood were missing in action in the fourth period, going scoreless after combining for 32 in the first three periods. Chan finished with a quiet six. Reid played hurt, nursing a right ankle sprain, and went out slugging like a warrior. He still managed to notch 23 points in a courageous effort.

It was San Mig Coffee’s destiny to win a Grand Slam. When the time came to win, Cone’s stars stepped up. Yap was particularly productive in scoring nine of his 29 points in the payoff period. He was consistent from start to finish, tallying seven in the first, seven in the second, six in the third and nine in the fourth. Blakely learned his lesson from Game 4 where he tried to take matters into his own hands and San Mig Coffee lost an 88-79 decision. In Game 5, Blakely played within Cone’s system of unselfishness and collected eight assists, five more than in Game 4.

“Sky’s the limit for this team,” said Cone. “I’m excited to get back to work. Our next goal is to win the All-Filipino next season. We’ll probably lose some players in the coming dispersal draft so after we find out whom we’ve lost, we’ll plan for the rookie draft to plug in the holes.”

For San Mig Coffee, basketball never stops. After a Grand Slam finish, Cone isn’t about to rest on his laurels. There are more championships to win and the Mixers won’t back down from the challenge. Next season will usher in a new PBA era where a record 12 teams are playing. The 40th season is a milestone and San Mig Coffee’s reign will be seriously threatened by 11 teams conspiring for a dethronement. But until then, the Mixers will relish the sweet feat of a rare Grand Slam triumph.

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