One down, three to go

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

After sprinting to a 3-0 lead in the PBA Philippine Cup Finals, Alaska blew the first of four chances to capture the crown in Game 4 at the PhilSports Arena last Sunday as San Miguel Beer proved tougher down the stretch to win, 110-104, in overtime and extend the tie to a Game 5 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum tonight.

JuneMar Fajardo has been out of action for San Miguel since the start of the Finals, still feeling the pain from a partially dislocated left kneecap suffered during a positioning struggle with Jireh Ibañes in Game 6 of the Rain Or Shine semifinal series. It’s not sure if he’ll be reactivated the rest of the way even with a patellar stabilizing brace that was brought in from the US last Friday. Coach Leo Austria is missing Fajardo’s numbers but it’s no use crying over what could’ve been. Fajardo is averaging 26 points, 14.9 rebounds and 36.7 minutes this conference so there’s a lot of covering up to do.

In Game 4, the balloons didn’t fall for Alaska although the Aces led for 45:28 minutes and San Miguel, only 7:12. Cyrus Baguio’s buzzer-beating triple forced a five-minute extension but the Beermen wouldn’t be denied their first win of the series, avoiding a sweep. Depth has been a perennial problem for San Miguel because Austria relies on a short rotation with Fajardo, Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot playing major minutes. With Fajardo out, it’s been easier for Alaska to clamp down on Santos and Cabagnot, wearing them down in the process.

It’s no wonder that in Games 1, 2 and 3, Alaska consistently outpointed San Miguel in the fourth period. In Game 1, San Miguel led for 33:50 minutes but faltered in the payoff quarter as the Aces closed out with a 34-16 surge in the last 12 minutes. The disparity in bench scoring was glaring as Alaska had 75 points and San Miguel, 17. In Game 2, Alaska was in control most of the way, leading for 45:52 minutes and still had the edge in fourth period points, 21-20. Once more, the Aces overpowered the San Miguel relievers, 49-17. In Game 3, San Miguel made a fight of it and led for 26:25 minutes compared to Alaska’s 20:09 but in the fourth period, the Aces had fresher legs to finish with a flourish, 27-17. The Beermen had more bench points than usual, 37, but Alaska had 50.

* * *

In Game 4, San Miguel saved its best for last. Alaska led for 45:28 minutes but the Beermen took over the driver’s seat in the fourth period. In all, San Miguel held the lead for only 7:12 minutes but the advantage came when it mattered most. In the fourth quarter, San Miguel outscored Alaska, 29-21 and closed it out with a 12-6 spurt in extension. Five San Miguel players logged at least 33 minutes – Santos, Cabagnot, Chris Ross, Marcio Lassiter and Gabby Espinas while not a single Ace checked in for more than 31. Lassiter and Espinas combined for 17 points in the fourth period to bring San Miguel back to life. Ross had a near triple double with 11 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.

Lassiter came off the bench for the first time in the Finals in Game 4 and delivered his best performance. Ross had his first Finals start, taking over from Roland Tubid and Chris Lutz started in Lassiter’s place. Austria’s shuffling provided San Miguel with a lot of second unit firepower. In the end, San Miguel produced 62 bench points, four less than Alaska but enough to match up with the Aces relievers.

Also for the first time in the Finals, San Miguel outrebounded Alaska in Game 4, 68-67 and was more efficient on the floor with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 19:11 compared to the Aces’ 20:21. Although Alaska is still up, 3-1, in the series, the Aces’ field goal percentage has gone down from game to game. In the opener, it was 52 percent. Then, in Game 2, it fell to 45 percent and in Game 3, dropped to 40 percent and in Game 4, slipped to 35 percent. Coach Alex Compton must address this downward trend before it becomes a serious problem.

Alaska has three more chances to gain payback on San Miguel which defeated the Aces in two of three Finals last season. Compton is chasing his first PBA championship and it’ll be quite a feat if he can nail it at San Miguel’s expense considering the rich history of the two franchises. For the Beermen to win the title, they’ll have to beat Alaska thrice more in a row and that’s a tall order. It’s triple match point for the Aces who haven’t lost two straight this conference.

* * *

Compton’s ability to motivate his players, no matter the odds, is a gift. The Alaska philosophy of “We Not Me” is reflected in Compton’s equal opportunity approach to the game. He doesn’t rely on any one player. He relies on the whole team playing like one fighting machine. It’s no wonder that Alaska’s leading scorer Vic Manuel hasn’t even started a game all conference long.

Calvin Abueva has started only once in the conference and that was in Game 2 of the Finals. Curiously, it was the only game in the series where Abueva failed to score in double figures. Abueva could be Compton’s most valuable player because of what he does on both ends. He’s shackled Santos in their matchup and provided a huge boost of energy off the bench at least in three of four games in the Finals.

Compton has also brought out the best from Chris Banchero, Cyrus Baguio, Sonny Thoss, Jvee Casio, R. J. Jazul, Eric Menk, Ping Exciminiano, Dondon Hontiveros, Noy Baclao, Rome de la Rosa and Tony de la Cruz. Hontiveros, a veteran, has come through with clutch baskets and started in Game 1. Exciminiano is an in-your-face defender who has started in seven of his last nine games dating back to the semifinals in matching up against Globalport’s Terrence Romeo. Nobody’s hankering for the spotlight at Alaska. The players don’t mind deferring and playing selflessly for as long as they win in the end.

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