Let the playoffs begin

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

After 66 elimination round games and a knockout to determine eighth place, the PBA Philippine Cup playoffs finally get underway with a doubleheader at the Don Honorio Ventura State University gym in Bacolor, Pampanga, today. The twinbill features No. 3 Magnolia (8-3) vs. No. 6 Rain Or Shine (6-5) at 3 p.m. and No. 4 San Miguel Beer (7-4) vs. No. 5 NorthPort (6-5) at 6 p.m. Both contests kick off the best-of-three quarterfinal series involving the four teams. The other quarterfinal matchups feature No. 1 TNT (10-1) enjoying a twice-to-beat advantage over No. 8 (either Phoenix or Barangay Ginebra) and No. 2 Meralco (9-2) holding a similar edge over No. 7 NLEX (5-6).

If Alaska defeated NorthPort last Thursday, it wouldve been a playoff for eighth between Phoenix and Terrafirma. In a four-way tie for eighth, Phoenix had the highest quotient of +13, Terrafirma was next with -9 then Alaska -10 and Ginebra -12. As it turned out, the Aces lost and the triple tie for eighth had Phoenix at +5, Ginebra +2 and Terrafirma -7. Alaska couldve squeezed into the playoffs if it beat San Miguel last Wednesday (the Aces dropped a 101-100 heartbreaker on Marcio Lassiters buzzer-beating triple) and NorthPort the next day.

There were seven elimination round games postponed because of health protocols and Alaska bore the brunt of the catch-up schedule, losing its last four outings in a span of six days. Of the 66 elimination round games, 13 were settled by three points or less and 13 were also decided by 20 or more, indicating a fair balance. Two games went into OT and one had two extensions.

The winners of the Magnolia-Rain Or Shine and Meralco-NLEX series will face off in the semis while the survivors of the TNT-Ginebra or Phoenix and San Miguel-NorthPort series will tangle in the other best-of-seven duel.

The San Miguel-NorthPort tussle will be a shootout. The Beermen are No. 1 in average points (97.8), No. 1 in field goal percentage (45.4), No. 3 in assists (20). No. 2 in turnover points (20.4) but No. 2 in most turnovers (17.2). NorthPort is No. 2 in offense (94.6), No. 2 in field goal percentage (41.8), No. 1 in blocks (5.5), No. 2 in rebounds (52.8) and No. 1 in fastbreak points (12.8). Itll be June Mar Fajardo against Greg Slaughter in the middle but the scoring battle between Robert Bolick (18.1) and CJ Perez (17.2) will be a focus of attention. Seven Beermen are averaging in twin digit points, a strong barometer of depth so that even if Terrence Romeo (19.1) and Alex Cabagnot (12.3) arent able to suit up, coach Leo Austria has more than enough weapons in his arsenal. An intriguing matchup is rookie Jamie Malonzo against veteran Arwind Santos, both long-armed and versatile. With Slaughter, the Batang Pier wont need to double Fajardo, limiting Austrias kickout options. Chris Rossdefense will be a headache for NorthPort.

San Miguel team manager Gee Abanilla said time will tell if Romeo and Cabagnot can be reactivated. “We’re doing everything we can to help them heal and recover as quickly and safely as possible but as it is, it’s still doubtful,” he said. “We’re not losing hope though as if we could prolong the games or get those extra days, it would be good for their potential return.”

In the Magnolia-Rain Or Shine series, it will be a dogfight. The Elasto Painters are No. 1 in defense, giving up only 78.5 points a game but their offense is a far cry as they rank No. 11 in field goal percentage (36.3), No. 10 in assists (17.5) and No. 9 in free throw percentage (66.4). Magnolia is a balanced unit, No. 4 in both offense and defense, No. 1 in three point percentage (33.7), No. 2 in assists (20.1) and No. 1 in free throw percentage (76.9). Coach Chris Gavina relies on Javee Mocon (12.9) and Rey Nambatac (10.7) for points but in his equal opportunity system, anyone can break out with James Yap, Beau Belga and Santi Santillan always ready to pull the trigger. Gabe Norwood, Norbert Torres, Jewel Ponferada, Mark Borboran, Anton Asistio, Andrei Caracut and Adrian Wong are role players who know what it takes to win as a unit. Magnolia, in contrast, is bursting with talent with Paul Lee (17.0), Ian Sangalang (16.9), Calvin Abueva (16.1) and Mark Barroca (11.4) leading the charge. Coach Chito Victolero is a master tactician with a knack for making the right calls in mid-game adjustments and rotations. In a short best-of-three series, anything can happen.

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