Leo Austria was on his way to oversee San Miguel Beer’s practice on Thursday morning and told the Inquirer the same message he hopes to drill into the Beermen’s heads on the eve of a crucial PBA Philippine Cup clash with back-to-the-wall Blackwater.
“This game is very important. Actually, our next two games will be very important,” Austria said over the phone, referring to their 4:30 p.m. clash with the Elite at Cuneta Astrodome on Friday and their tussle with red-hot Alaska on the road in eight days.
“These games will practically decide whether we get it (a top two finish) and I will tell my players that we need to go all out (in these),” he said as the Beermen try to keep a solid grip of top spot with a win over Blackwater and make the Alaska game a virtual clash for one of two twice-to-beat privileges.
San Miguel has four games left, with KIA Picanto coming after Alaska and then the one against Rain or Shine ending its elimination round schedule.
Austria has put a premium on a win-once bonus on his boys as they gun for an unprecedented fourth straight championship here. “If you have that advantage, you’re virtually assured of making the last four,” he said.
The Beermen are in for a rough ride against Blackwater, for not only are the Elite going to fight for dear life, they also have the tools to play big and fast, just like what the Beermen have used to establish a dynasty in this conference.
And San Miguel will go into its last four games still without high-scoring point guard Alex Cabagnot and back-up power forward Gabby Espinas.
There’s still no timeline on Cabagnot’s return, with his injury still “to be evaluated in the next two weeks.”
San Miguel is leading the pack with a 6-1 card, with Alaska and Magnolia tied for second at 6-2. The Elasto Painters are the only other team with an outside chance of a twice-to-beat bonus with a 4-3 record.
Austria believes that eight wins would mean “an 85 percent chance” of nailing a quarterfinal bonus, but he said that they must get to eight wins or more—and must beat Alaska to get there—to avoid complications in the tiebreak, if ever.
“It would be frustrating to fall into ties and losing there,” he said.
Blackwater, at 2-5, is expected to make its final push for a playoff slot. Unlike those caught in the middle of the standings, the Elite do not have the luxury of playing for position.
Instead, the hard-fighting crew of coach Leo Isaac are in a frantic footrace to stay out of the bottom four.
Only the top eight teams after the end of the elimination round will make it to the playoffs and as it stands, Blackwater is outside that circle.
While the Beermen are trying to salvage a top two spot, NLEX and Meralco clash in the second game at 7 p.m. looking for wins to stay in the running for playoff berths.
With a 3-4 record, the Road Warriors still have a chance to salvage a place in the middle of the pack and get a fair chance in the quarterfinals by falling into a best-of-three series.
Led by rookie Kiefer Ravena, the league’s No. 2 overall pick, the Road Warriors started the season on the wings of optimism validated lofty predictions by winning their first two matches.
But NLEX fell into an inexplicable slump, dropping its next four games to fall out of the race for one of the top two berths. The Road Warriors got back in a big way by bringing down another struggling favorite in Barangay Ginebra but still need to collect wins to stay in the playoff hunt.
Meralco, on the other hand, are at 2-5 and would need nothing less than a sweep of its last four games to entertain thoughts of making it past this round for the first time under multititled Norman Black.
Struggling anew with a lack of a legitimate big man plus injuries to key players, Meralco has failed to build on the momentum of a run to the Finals in the recent Governors’ Cup.
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