Back to basics

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

From a 3-0 lead, Alaska lost three in a row and now faces a fired-up San Miguel Beer in the winner-take-all Game 7 at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena tomorrow night. The momentum is clearly on San Miguel’s side with the Beermen rediscovering the defensive toughness that brought them to the semifinals in the first place.

While it’s a fact that back-to-back reigning MVP JuneMar Fajardo sat out the first three games, San Miguel could’ve won Games 1 and 3. The Beermen led for 33:50 minutes in Game 1 then ran out of steam down the stretch as the Aces took the fourth period, 34-16, and clinched it, 100-91. In Game 3, San Miguel was on top for 26:25 minutes but once again, had little left in the payoff quarter which Alaska dominated, 27-17, enroute to an 82-75 decision.

In the eliminations, Alaska was No. 2 in offense, averaging 101.27 points and six Aces hit at least 8.9 points an outing. The Aces were No. 2 in assists with 20.5 a game, No. 1 in forcing turnovers (20.1), No. 1 in field goal percentage (45.2), No. 1 in three-point percentage (38.6), No. 1 in turnover points (17.5) and No. 2 in fastbreak points (13.2). San Miguel, on the other hand, was No. 2 in defense, giving up 89.3 points a contest, No. 1 in second chance points (14.7) and No. 1 in blocked shots (5.1). The numbers show that Alaska thrives in a high-octane shootout while San Miguel prefers a low-scoring, grind-it-out battle to take advantage of Fajardo’s size.

Alaska’s “We Not Me” concept is reflected in coach Alex Compton’s philosophy of equal opportunity. Motion is the key to Alaska’s success on both ends. It’s about ball and player movement. On offense, Compton likes to keep the ball moving from player to player until the best shot available is found. The idea is to keep the defense guessing. That means the offense can’t be predictable. It’s the reason why Alaska had eight players in double figure points when the Aces dismantled GlobalPort, 123-104, last Nov. 20 and why six Aces scored in twin digits in the 88-86 win over Meralco last Dec. 3.

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If you take away Alaska’s motion, the Aces become stagnant and are easier to defend. That’s exactly how San Miguel has been able to dig out of a 0-3 hole to force a Game 7. Coach Leo Austria has gambled on a zone defense to freeze Alaska’s shooters and goad the Aces leading scorer Vic Manuel to try to beat the Beermen by himself.

Manuel is a rugged interior operator who has the ability to work his way close to the basket for power shots. Against the zone, he isn’t able to establish post position that easily. So when the ball finds Manuel on the block, it’ll take time for him to either shoot or pass. It’ll be fine for Alaska if Manuel scores on every touch but that’s not humanly possible. Maybe that’s what San Miguel wants Alaska to do – to make Manuel the first option on offense in every possession. The Beermen may be inviting Manuel to go one-on-one because that prevents the ball from moving around.

Manuel scored 20 points in Game 4 but Alaska lost, 110-104, in overtime. He shot 25 in Game 5 which the Aces also lost, 86-73 in extension. In Game 6, Manuel delivered 21 points but again Alaska lost, 100-89. Manuel took 18 shots from the field and five from the line in Game 5 and 14 shots from the field and six from the line in Game 6. In both contests, no teammate had more field goal attempts so for a player who hasn’t started a game this conference, he’s taking a lot of shots. In Game 5, Alaska had only 13 assists and in Game 6, 17 – both below the Aces’ norm before the semifinals.

With Manuel taking the offensive load, Alaska’s guards are left with few options. When the guards get the ball, they take either hurried shots or are well covered because the lack of motion is disrupting their rhythm. It’s no wonder that Cyrus Baguio was 1-of-11 from the field in Game 5 and 1-of-6 in Game 6. Dondon Hontiveros was 1-of-10 in the last two outings.

San Miguel isn’t supposed to be as deep as Alaska but in Game 5, four Beermen hit in double figures compared to four for the Aces and in Game 6, five Beermen scored in twin digits compared to four for Alaska. San Miguel obviously did something to prevent Alaska from doing what it does best – move the ball around for the high percentage shot. In Game 5, the Aces hit 32 percent from the floor and in Game 6, it was 40 percent.

Fajardo’s reemergence has provided a huge lift for San Miguel although the Beermen took Game 4 without the Kraken. He played 16:28 minutes in Game 5 and 22:10 in Game 6, both off the bench. His presence wasn’t only inspirational for San Miguel but also daunting for Alaska. When Fajardo began to score almost at will in the fourth period of Game 6, the Aces suddenly looked forlorn.

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The Aces must find a solution to crack San Miguel’s zone which sometimes extends to the perimeter shooters or compresses to pack the lane. The Beermen are baiting Alaska to penetrate instead of take the outside shots because they’ve got the bigs to protect the rim. In Game 5, San Miguel had eight blocked shots and Alaska, zero. To attack the zone successfully, Alaska has to step up the pace, invade the lane and locate shooters who must be ready to fire at the snap of a finger off kick-outs. That means Manuel can’t hold on to the ball too long and try to manufacture a shot – if the lane is clogged, he’s got to know when to release and his teammates must make themselves available for a catch and shoot. Baguio and Hontiveros are overdue for an explosion but they won’t erupt unless they’re set up.

For San Miguel, it’s a case of dragging Alaska to a dogfight. Fajardo will be coming off a four-day rest. But Austria shouldn’t force the issue. He managed Fajardo’s minutes efficiently in Games 5 and 6. Austria must do the same in Game 7 without overextending him. To keep pace with Alaska, Austria can’t afford to tire out his nucleus. In Game 6, seven Beermen logged at least 20 minutes and nobody went over 40. That’s a positive sign for Austria – the rotation was quicker and deeper.

If there’s one thing that will keep San Miguel on the throne, it’s defense. Austria is a zone master. He uses the match-up zone so his players aren’t stuck to defending space and also uses the 2-3 or 2-1-2 if he wants to clog the lane. On the flip side, the Beermen must be in synch offensively with Arwind Santos, Marcio Lassiter, Alex Cabagnot and Ronald Tubid not rushing their shots and staying patient in the halfcourt.

For Alaska, the Aces must go back to what brought them to the Finals – motion, transition, pressure in the backcourt. The word is Compton has key adjustments in mind for Game 7 and may tweak his starting lineup to get the jump on San Miguel. The Aces will want to play up-tempo and push Fajardo to go up-and-down. Manuel is a key player in Alaska’s scheme of things but he won’t be able to win Game 7 by himself.

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