Like fine wine

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

With Meralco sprinting to a 2-1 lead in the PBA Governors Cup best-of-seven finals, the pressure is on Barangay Ginebra to tie the series count in Game 4 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum tonight because another loss will mean plunging to a 1-3 hole where the chances of survival are slim or none.

For Ginebra, it’s a virtual must-win situation in Game 4. A win will send the series back to square one, making it a best-of-three affair but a loss will put Meralco just a triumph away from capturing its first-ever PBA crown.

So far, the trend has been clear. If it’s a low-scoring, defense-oriented game, Ginebra wins. If it’s a high-scoring, offense-oriented battle, Meralco prevails. In Meralco’s two wins, the Bolts have averaged 110.5 points. In Ginebra’s only victory in Game 2, the Bolts were held to 79 points. Ginebra coach Tim Cone himself said the only way the Barangay will win the series is if it plays consistently tough defense. The probability of Ginebra winning a game is highest when Meralco is limited to 90 points or less.

As expected, the opposing imports are making a major impact in the series. Meralco’s Allen Durham and Ginebra’s Justin Brownlee are quality imports who are committed to play their butts out for their team. Durham took Best Import honors for the conference, an award he richly deserves. Brownlee made a case for himself to claim the distinction but Durham’s impact was more significant, considering Meralco had never before advanced to the finals and the Bolts were in last place just two conferences back.

Not surprisingly, the veterans are stealing the show in the finals. Experience is a big factor in coping with pressure situations. For Meralco, the veterans who are leading the charge are Jimmy Alapag, 38, and Reynel Hugnatan, 37. For Ginebra, it’s L. A. Tenorio, 32 and Sol Mercado, 32. Two other veterans in the Ginebra cast are playing a subdued role in the Barangay’s drive to win its first championship since the 2008 Fiesta Conference. They’re the Fast and the Furious – Mark Caguioa, 36 and JayJay Helterbrand who’s celebrating his 40th birthday today. This could be the last title run for Caguioa and Helterbrand so the race is sentimental to the Ginebra legends.

Alapag is the glue that’s keeping Meralco together. In the Bolts’ two wins in the finals, he averaged 15.5 points – in their loss, he scored only three. Alapag hasn’t started a game in the series as coach Norman Black prefers to play him off the bench for matchup reasons. Curiously, Alapag and Hugnatan were picked on the first round of the same draft in 2003. Hugnatan was the ninth pick and Alapag, the 10th. Chosen ahead of the two were Mike Cortez, Romel Adducul, Eddie Laure, Harvey Carey, Brandon Cablay, Billy Mamaril and Enrico Villanueva. Hugnatan, who played for Coca-Cola and Alaska before moving to Meralco, averaged 16 points in two Meralco wins in the finals and scored only nine in Game 2 which Ginebra won. Black started Hugnatan in Games 1 and 3 which Meralco took so he appears to be a lucky denominator. Alapag is Black’s ace up his sleeve – the Mighty Mouse is on his first year with Meralco since coming out of retirement from TNT and he’s just what the Bolts need to stabilize the team on the floor. Together, Alapag and Hugnatan have played on 10 PBA title squads.

Only five players are at least 30 years old in the Meralco cast, providing Black with a lot of young blood to develop. The rookies in his playoff lineup are Baser Amer, 24 and Chris Newsome, 26. Black masterfully assembled a fighting unit with chemistry in mind. He’s got four Ateneo players, two from San Beda and one each from Letran and the University of Manila.    

For Ginebra, Tenorio’s court leadership and Mercado’s defense as an import stopper are key elements in Cone’s battle plan. In Cone’s scheme of things, neither Tenorio nor Mercado has to score big numbers for Ginebra to win. For as long as Tenorio orchestrates like a Benny Goodman and Mercado is able to play his usual physical style of defense, Cone couldn’t ask for more.

There are six Ginebra players who are at least 30. Rookies are Scottie Thompson, 23, Aljon Mariano, 24 and Lee Villamor, 26. Cone’s roster includes three from Ateneo, two from UST and one each from NU and San Beda. Like Black, Cone has no problem with chemistry. His challenge is to get Ginebra working together like a strike force out to eliminate the enemy in a war zone.

Caguioa scored in double figures in the first two games but went scoreless in Game 3. Helterbrand has played in only Game 2 so far. Since it’s his 40th birthday today, maybe Cone will give him a chance in Game 4 tonight to show he still belongs in the PBA.

In Games 1 and 2, the team with more field goal attempts, more rebounds, more three point conversions, more turnover points, more second chance points and more offensive boards won. But in Game 3, the team with more field goal attempts, more rebounds, more turnover points, more second chance points and more offensive boards lost. Meralco beat Ginebra, 107-104, in a contest where the Bolts had 23 less field goal attempts, five less rebounds, 10 less offensive boards, nine less turnover points and 11 less second chance points. The difference was in the shooting department as Meralco had more converted three-pointers, 12-4 and more made free throws, 21-7.   

The attendance has been huge from Game 1 where a crowd of 14,522 came out. In Game 2, the PBA reported an audience of 18,287 and in Game 3, it was 14,285. Because of the critical nature of Game 4, a sellout is expected.

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