Has tide turned?
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - April 23, 2019 - 12:00am

Phoenix was lucky to beat San Miguel Beer, 92-90, in Game 3 of their PBA Philippine Cup best-of-7 semifinal series at the Smart Araneta Coliseum last Sunday but a win is a win and coach Louie Alas is hoping the squeaker will build momentum for Game 4 at the Cuneta Astrodome tonight.

Has the tide turned for the Pulse Fuel Masters? Or did the win in Game 3 just delay the inevitable? In basketball, anything can happen. An injury to a key player, an ejection, a bad decision, a poor pass, an emotional outburst or a coaching oversight could make or break a team. Numbers are usually good indicators of what’s to happen but you can never overlook the intangibles.

Last Sunday, Phoenix was in a virtual must-win situation. Another loss would’ve brought the Fuel Masters down to a 0-3 hole and that’s nearly impossible to dig out of. Alas knew his predicament and that’s why Phoenix came out blasting with a sense of urgency. Phoenix got off to an 8-0 start and San Miguel, groping without Marcio Lassiter in the starting lineup, missed its first 10 shots. Lassiter had started 14 of San Miguel’s 16 games and sat out Sunday’s encounter with back issues.

The Fuel Masters raised their level of physicality to disrupt San Miguel’s rhythm. They paid a hefty price for it. Jason Perkins picked up his third foul with 8:48 left in the first period. Matthew Wright was slapped a flagrant foul 1 in the same quarter. Dave Marcelo was ejected with 10:22 to go in the second canto. Alas went to Doug Kramer as JuneMar Fajardo’s primary defender with Calvin Abueva providing double coverage. Ron Dennison came off the bench early to shadow Terrence Romeo. 

San Miguel coach Leo Austria tried different combinations to compensate for Lassiter’s absence. Ronald Tubid made his second start this conference and was matched up against Wright. With Fajardo and Christian Standhardinger playing together, it became a tougher challenge to double the Kraken. But it meant sliding Arwind Santos from four to three. The Spiderman took all 12 of his attempts from beyond the arc and knocked down only one. Alas paired R. J. Jazul and L. A. Revilla in a small backcourt to pick up the pace in the second period. Fajardo didn’t force the issue in the first half, finishing with only four points but the good news for San Miguel was Phoenix was up by only four, 40-36, after two periods.

Fajardo went to work in the third quarter, scoring 10 points and the Beermen opened the payoff period on top, 66-64. Wright hit 6-of-6 free throws with less than a minute to go to lift Phoenix to the close win. San Miguel missed five foul shots in the last 3:47 and Phoenix stole it in the end. In all, the Beermen flubbed 17 free throws and lost by only two. San Miguel took 47 three-point shots and only 37 from two-point distance against a team that’s No. 1 in three-point percentage allowed. In contrast, Phoenix had 26 tries from beyond the arc and 61 from two-point range.

Down the stretch, Justin Chua was Fajardo’s primary defender with either Abueva or Perkins doubling. Austria went with Fajardo, Standhardinger, Romeo, Alex Cabagnot and Chris Ross for his finishing five, leaving out Santos. Phoenix dominated the boards, 71-49 and had a huge edge in offensive rebounds, 28-15, negating the possessions the Fuel Masters threw away because of 22 turnovers. 

J. C. Intal’s recovery from a seven-game sit-out due to a left hand fracture in the eliminations has been a major boost for Phoenix. In Game 3, he delivered eight points, nine rebounds and four assists. Jazul has been a stabilizer at point guard, increasing his output from 11 to 12 to 14 throughout the semis. Chua has also contributed in a big way from five points in Game 1 to 12 in Game 2 to 15 in Game 3. Wright is the backbone and has scored in double figures in every game this conference. Abueva is the catalyst, averaging 17.3 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists in the series. Perkins’ numbers are down in the semis, coping with foul issues but he remains a threat and in Game 3, his eight points in the third period were crucial.

San Miguel will likely bring Lassiter back in the fray tonight. Austria will make adjustments and insist on taking higher percentage shots. For a team with Fajardo and Standhardinger, why did San Miguel take 10 more attempts from three-point range than two-point distance last Sunday? Missing 17 free throws in Game 3 was a backbreaker but the odds are shooting 56.4 percent or less from the line won’t happen again. Anticipating the double on Fajardo, San Miguel should spread the floor to make it harder for Phoenix to cover open space. It will be interesting to find out what adjustments Austria has in mind.

For Alas, tonight is another virtual must-win situation. A loss will open a 3-1 advantage for San Miguel and that means to survive, Phoenix must win three in a row – an extremely tall order. Alas is hoping that winning Game 3 has shifted momentum and the Fuel Masters can ride the tide to even the series. Game 3 had nine lead changes and eight ties. Phoenix was ahead 83 percent of the way yet won by only two with Lassiter sidelined. The team that wins Game 4 will likely make it to the Finals. That’s how critical tonight’s battle is.

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