Battle lines drawn
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - May 1, 2019 - 12:00am

Only one team has scored at least 100 points against Magnolia in the PBA Philippine Cup and that was San Miguel Beer. It happened during the eliminations at the Smart Araneta Coliseum last Feb. 10 and the Beermen trounced the Hotshots, 113-92. That loss came as Magnolia started the conference on a 0-3 note. Since that slide, Magnolia has won 12 of its next 18 games and the Hotshots’ defense has been unforgiving.

In the semifinals, Magnolia went the distance in ousting Rain or Shine and the Elasto Painters never scored more than 93 in any of the seven games. The Hotshots gave up an average of 81 points in the series but only 74.8 in their four wins. That kind of stifling defense is what boosted Magnolia to No. 1 in the points-against department, surrendering only 83.9 points in 21 games so far. The Hotshots are also No. 1 in field goal percentage allowed, 38.1 percent, meaning teams don’t usually shoot over 40 percent against Magnolia. The team is also No. 1 in least second chance points allowed, 10.9, No. 2 in least assists allowed, 18.5 and No. 3 in least fastbreak points allowed, 11.0. 

Magnolia’s defense will be put to a severe test in the Last Dance where the Hotshots face their nemesis San Miguel Beer. The best-of-7 Finals begins at the Big Dome tonight. Game 2 is scheduled on Friday, Game 3 on Sunday and Game 4 next Wednesday. If necessary, Game 5 will be on Friday, May 10, Game 6 on Sunday, May 12 and Game 7 on Wednesday, May 15. All the contests will be at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

If Magnolia is merciless on defense, San Miguel is deadliest on offense. The Beermen ranked No. 1 in offense in the eliminations, averaging 105.5 points, No. 1 in field goal percentage, 45.6 and No. 1 in three-point field goal percentage, 37.9. If coach Leo Austria demands defense, the Beermen can just as easily turn on the heat. In disposing of TNT in the quarterfinals, San Miguel limited the KaTropa to an average of 85.7 over three games. The Beermen showed they can win in a defense-oriented series, too. In the semifinals against Phoenix, San Miguel was engaged in a shootout and averaged 100.2 points. Whether it’s defense or offense, San Miguel is tough to beat. And that’s the challenge facing Magnolia.

In the previous Philippine Cup Finals, San Miguel took only five games to trounce Magnolia although the clincher was a double-overtime cliffhanger. The Hotshots took Game 1, 105-103, then the Beermen swept the next four encounters, 92-77 in Game 2, 111-87 in Game 3, 84-80 in Game 4 and 108-99 in Game 5. June Mar Fajardo was unstoppable in the closer with 42 points. Arwind Santos fired 23 points while Chris Ross delivered a triple double with 13 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in the finisher. Magnolia’s lineup has remained the same this conference while San Miguel moved out Gabby Espinas, Keith Agovida and Brian Heruela and took in Terrence Romeo and Christian Standhardinger.

For San Miguel, retaining the Philippine Cup crown will extend its championship streak in the conference to five. After claiming the last title, San Miguel finished runner-up in the Commissioner’s Cup and a poor seventh in the Governors Cup. Failing to make the Final Four in the previous conference was a huge letdown for San Miguel and Austria wants redemption.

For Magnolia, it’s coach Chito Victolero’s second straight Finals, third in the last four conferences. If the Hotshots win the title, it’ll be extremely sweet for Victolero not only because San Miguel is on the opposite side but also because the Hotshots started the Philippine Cup eliminations 0-3, the best-of-3 quarterfinals 0-1 and the semifinals 0-2. Magnolia survived three do-or-die games to make it to the Last Dance so the breakthrough has to be special.

Even with Marcio Lassiter not playing in Game 3, going scoreless in Game 4 and contributing only three points in Game 5, San Miguel was hardly threatened by Phoenix in the semis. Matt Ganuelas-Rosser has reemerged as a defensive force at the three spot and he’ll be useful in shadowing Paul Lee, Robbie Herndon or Rome de la Rosa. 

In their elimination round game, Magnolia forced San Miguel to 19 errors while committing only nine but failed to capitalize as the Beermen had more turnover points, 30-21. They were even in rebounds, 47-all. Magnolia is No. 2 in rebounding this conference and if the Hotshots are able to control the boards and force San Miguel into a slew of turnovers, it will mean more possessions and more attempts. That will be the keys for Magnolia to win – control the rebounds, force turnovers and capitalize. How to defend Fajardo will be critical. At the low post, Fajardo will surely be doubled. If Fajardo is involved in ballscreens and pick-and-rolls, he’ll be harder to defend with a double. 

Magnolia’s Ian Sangalang and Rafi Reavis have started every game in the playoffs together. Their combination has to click for Magnolia to even hope to beat San Miguel in the series. Reavis, 41, is enjoying a resurgence and his 20 rebounds in Game 7 of the Rain or Shine semis series signaled he’s ready to battle in the Finals. Victolero will shuffle his backcourt troops to use Mark Barroca, Jio Jalalon or Justin Melton in a small combination but may deploy Lee at two instead of three to bait Rosser and Lassiter (if he’s available) in a cross-matchup. 

San Miguel is heavily favored to win the series. Fajardo is averaging 20.6 points and 13.1 rebounds and five other Beermen are hitting at a double figure clip – Alex Cabagnot (15.7), Romeo (14.2), Standhardinger (13.5), Lassiter (12.7) and Santos (11.2). Then, there’s Ross who’s averaging 9.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 6.7 assists while hitting at a team-high 41.2 percent from beyond the arc. Down the line, Austria’s other weapons include Von Pessumal, Kelly Nabong and Rosser. San Miguel’s depth is awesome and Austria’s rotation is a killer.

Unless Victolero comes up with something extremely revolutionary in terms of neutralizing San Miguel’s explosive artillery, the Beermen could make it a short series, finishing in four or five. If Magnolia pushes it to a Game 6, it will mean San Miguel tiring out from the Hotshots’ relentless defense and if there’s a Game 7, it’ll go down to a test of wills.

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