Now or never
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - May 15, 2019 - 12:00am

It ends tonight. The PBA Philippine Cup Finals will reach a dramatic conclusion in Game 7 of the best-of-7 series at the Smart Araneta Coliseum tonight with San Miguel Beer intent on bagging its fifth straight title in the conference and Magnolia determined to win two consecutive crowns. Both teams are on a hot streak – this is their third finals in the last four conferences.

In the previous Philippine Cup, San Miguel disposed of Magnolia in five games. That was the Beermen’s fourth Philippine Cup title in a row. In the next conference, the Commissioner’s Cup, San Miguel was back in the Finals but lost to Barangay Ginebra while Magnolia tumbled to seventh place. Then, in the Governors Cup, Magnolia took its turn on the throne with San Miguel dropping to seventh place. Now, to start the PBA’s 44th season, they’re back in the finals with a bang but the journey has been far from smooth.

San Miguel started the conference 2-3 and finished No. 5 in the eliminations. Magnolia’s trip was rockier, opening at 0-3 and was down 0-1 in the best-of-3 quarterfinals against Ginebra and 0-2 in the best-of-7 semifinals against Rain or Shine. But fate brought them together to the Last Dance for another encounter.

No team has won two straight games in the finals. If the trend continues, Magnolia will win Game 7. But if not, San Miguel will break the pattern. The team that is able to dictate its style of play will prevail. Magnolia’s three wins came when the Hotshots held San Miguel to an average of 87.3 points while the Beermen’s three wins came when they averaged 106.7. If it’s high-scoring and offense-oriented, San Miguel has the edge. If it’s low-scoring and defense-oriented, Magnolia has the advantage.

In Game 6 last Sunday, San Miguel knocked down its most triples in the series – 14. The Beermen set the tone early, hitting five treys in a scorching 25-12 first period as Magnolia struggled without a single triple and free throw. The 12 points were the lowest Magnolia has scored in the first period in the finals. It was the first time a team led all the way from start to finish. San Miguel held Magnolia to 10 turnover points and 79 field goal attempts, both series lows for the Hotshots.

Magnolia didn’t go away with a whimper and razed a 21-point deficit in the second period to only six at the half. But when Rafi Reavis picked up his fifth personal with 8:02 left, the Hotshots crumbled. San Miguel opened up a 22-point cushion on the way to a rousing 98-86 decision.

San Miguel coach Leo Austria’s challenge is maintaining a high level of chemistry on the floor. June Mar Fajardo and Christian Standhardinger are now learning how to play off each other but it’s meant less minutes for Arwind Santos. It’s the same situation in the backcourt where Austria is splitting time between Terrence Romeo and Alex Cabagnot to play alongside Chris Ross. Standhardinger has become a barometer of sorts for San Miguel. In three San Miguel wins, he’s averaged 14 points but in three losses, it’s down to 5.7. Cabagnot averaged four points in the last two contests while Romeo hit at a 10 point clip. Austria is capitalizing on matchup strengths and has compromised the minutes of certain mainstays, who’ve been used to playing more.

Mark Barroca, the Game 5 hero, took the night off in Game 6, finishing with only six points after notching 22 in each of the last three outings. It was the first game in the finals where he didn’t score in double figures. Ian Sangalang shot 14 points, his lowest in the series. Obviously, it wasn’t a do-or-die situation for Magnolia so there was no urgency for Magnolia coach Chito Victolero to push the Hotshots to the limit. But tonight is a different story.

If Magnolia is able to hold San Miguel to less than 30 percent shooting and less than 90 points like it did in Game 5, the Hotshots should take the clincher. But that will mean Reavis and Sangalang staying out of foul trouble to defend Fajardo. Paul Lee, Barroca and Jio Jalalon must outwork Ross, Cabagnot and Romeo for Magnolia to prevail. If the Beermen wax hot from the perimeter and dominate the interior, it’ll be difficult for the Hotshots to establish control. San Miguel is a lot deeper and more experienced to cope with now-or-never situations. It’ll be a war to settle conference supremacy once and for all.

MAGNOLIA PBA PHILIPPINE CUP FINALS SAN MIGUEL BEER
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