D for destiny, defense

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

It was no coincidence that in the last three games of the PBA Philippine Cup Finals, San Miguel Beer held Alaska to less than 90 points. Before the semifinals, the Aces ranked No. 2 in league offense with an average of 101.3 points and San Miguel was No. 2 in defense, allowing 89.3 points a game. So in the duel for the crown, it came down to which team would be able to do what it does best. For Alaska, the mission was to run and gun. For San Miguel, the gambit was to grind it out.

The Aces had six players who were at least 30 years old compared to 10 for San Miguel although Alaska’s Eric Menk is 41 and Dondon Hontiveros 38. San Miguel’s seniors were Yancy de Ocampo and Bitoy Omolon, both 35. The personnel profiles meant on paper, Alaska could rely on fresher, younger legs down the stretch. It also justified the strategy of running San Miguel to the ground.

San Miguel was handicapped in the first four games of the Finals with reigning back-to-back MVP JuneMar Fajardo nursing a partially dislocated left kneecap. No surgery was required to get Fajardo back on the floor, only rest to allow the healing to come naturally. Coach Leo Austria not only made major adjustments to compensate for Fajardo’s absence but he also had to convince his players they could win without the Kraken.

Austria realigned his troops for Game 1 and for a while, it looked like San Miguel would pull the rug from under the Aces. The Beermen, however, lost steam in the fourth period which Alaska took, 34-16, enroute to a 100-91 decision. San Miguel led for 33:50 minutes and was up, 78-66, early in the payoff quarter but just couldn’t sustain the fire.

In Game 2, San Miguel kept it close but couldn’t find the finishing kick to fend off Alaska. The Aces won, 83-80, even if they were outscored from the line, 16-10 and in fastbreak points, 21-16. In Game 3, another fourth quarter spurt pushed Alaska to win, 82-75. The Aces outscored San Miguel, 27-17, in the last 12 minutes to escape despite a low-scoring contest.

* * * *

After three straight losses, San Miguel’s back was against the wall. But Austria never showed signs of panic. Chris Ross got his first start in the Finals and delivered 11 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Marcio Lassiter, coming off the bench after eight straight starts going back to the semifinals, hit 26. Gabby Espinas, playing in Arwind Santos’ shadow, compiled 21 points and 14 boards. Austria’s adjustments in rotation kept the Beermen on track in the fourth period which they took, 29-21, and in overtime, 12-6, for a rousing 110-104 victory. That set the stage for Fajardo’s comeback.

In Game 5, Fajardo played only 16:28 minutes and scored 13 points as a reliever. If San Miguel’s confidence got a boost from its win in Game 4, it got a bigger lift with Fajardo’s return. The Beermen prevailed in overtime, 86-73, as the Aces were held to only 32 percent from the field, down from 52 percent in Game 1. For San Miguel to limit Alaska to 73 points even with five more minutes in extension was a testament to Austria’s commitment to defense. At that point, Austria should’ve and must have realized that for San Miguel to come back from 0-3 down to win the series, defense would be the key.

In Game 6, San Miguel limited the Aces to less than 90 points for the second straight contest and won, 100-89. Over the last two outings, Cyrus Baguio was 2-of-17, Hontiveros 1-of-10, Menk 2-of-12, Chris Exciminiano 2-of-5, Jvee Casio 5-of-14 and Sonny Thoss 6-of-20. Those numbers reflected a disruption in Alaska’s offensive rhythm. Curiously, Alaska’s leading scorer Vic Manuel scored 25 points in Game 5 and 21 in Game 6 but the Aces lost both encounters. Manuel’s ability to maneuver for power shots has apparently made Alaska’s offense predictable and taken the flow out of the Aces’ ball movement so that when the Muscle Man is bottled up, he releases too late for the guards to take good shots.

A crowd of 23,616 jammed the MOA Arena for Game 7 last Wednesday. Alaska coach Alex Compton used a psychological ploy in an attempt to distract San Miguel when he called three consecutive full timeouts with just a second from the opening tip. The idea was to make San Miguel uneasy. During those timeouts, the Aces did calisthenics. When play was resumed, Compton took starters Hontiveros, Menk, Sam Eman and Rome de la Rosa off the floor, kept Baguio in and brought out R. J. Jazul, Calvin Abueva, Manuel and Thoss. Compton obviously wanted to confuse Austria in matching up.

* * * *

The trick fueled Alaska’s 8-5 start. But San Miguel countered with a 13-0 bomb and never looked back. Early in the third period, Casio scored to trim the gap to three, 43-40, then the Beermen retaliated with a 10-0 surge. San Miguel’s lead went up to 21 at 68-47 before the end of the third. In the fourth period, Alaska ignited a 12-2 binge from 15 down and Noy Baclao scored to cut the margin to five, 77-72. San Miguel regrouped and triggered a 10-3 run, seven from Ross, to virtually ice it with 2:52 left. Lassiter shot six of San Miguel’s last seven points from the line to close out the scoring.

Alaska’s Chris Banchero, who played for Austria when San Miguel won the ABL title in 2013, sizzled for 16 of his 21 points in the fourth to keep the Aces afloat. Abueva had 10 of his 16, also in the fourth. For the third straight game, San Miguel had more players scoring in double figures than Alaska. The Aces had five more field goal attempts than the Beermen but could only hit 37 percent and had three less three-point conversions. San Miguel dominated the boards, 62-50, preserving the trend that the team with more rebounds won every game in the Finals.

Defense kept Alaska’s gunners in check as Baguio was 1-of-7, Jazul 0-of-3 and Hontiveros 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. Manuel, battling a sprained ankle, was 1-of-7 from the floor. Ross logged 42:27 minutes and had 21 points, five rebounds and five assists. Austria turned Alex Cabagnot into a two-guard so he could play alongside Ross and moved Lassiter up to three and Santos to four. The adjustments left Chris Lutz and Ronald Tubid with less minutes. Fajardo played 29:25 minutes off the bench and collected 21 points and 15 boards. De Ocampo, given a new lease on life as a main character in San Miguel’s cast, finished with seven points and 10 rebounds.

San Miguel’s historic Lazarus comeback from 0-3 to win the title was one for the books. Was it destiny or defense or both that kept the Beermen on the Philippine Cup throne? Perhaps, another D was the telling factor – determination. San Miguel just refused to lose and Austria did a remarkable job steering the ship over troubled waters until landing it safely on the shores of victory.

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