Keys to victory: San Miguel-Ginebra Finals series
With a shot on history at hand, San Miguel is stepping up to the plate as it seeks to snare its third straight all-Filipino title.
And its sibling Ginebra has come forward, providing the final thorn in its quest for immortality.
The Beermen and the Gin Kings – two of the most storied franchises in the PBA – go at it in the 2017 PBA Philippine Cup Finals starting on Friday.
It’s not only a battle for supremacy, but also sets the stage for the duel between SMC cornerstones, with one eyeing to capture the Perpetual trophy with a third straight all-Filipino conquest and the other gunning for back-to-back titles after eight years of ignominy.
And as we brace for a possible seven games between these two titans, here are INQUIRER’s keys to victory for this series.
The Fajardo factor
June Mar Fajardo is not a three-time PBA Most Valuable Player for nothing.
Standing at 6-foot-10, the Cebuano giant is undoubtedly the biggest ace coach Leo Austria has in his arsenal through the Beermen’s dominant run. And with his conference averages of 19.0 points (second-best in the league), 16.0 rebounds (best), 2.4 blocks (best), and 1.7 assists, it’s a sure bet that he is on his way to winning his record-tying fifth Best Player of the Conference award.
Ginebra coach Tim Cone knows that it’s going to be hard stopping Fajardo in this series, especially with big man Greg Slaughter still out with an ACL injury. The challenge now for the Gin Kings is to limit or at least make Fajardo uncomfortable.
Luckily for Ginebra, San Miguel’s semifinals foe TNT has provided it a blueprint, throwing everything and the kitchen sink in hopes of stopping the big man. And at times, it worked with Kelly Williams, Mo Tautuaa, Troy Rosario, and Danny Seigle all taking turns. But in the end, Fajardo still normed his usual numbers and helped the Beermen prevail in seven games.
Can Japeth Aguilar, Jervy Cruz, or Dave Marcelo be able to neutralize San Miguel’s dominant Kraken?
Defensive chess match
In hindsight, it’s easy to cite this matchup as offense versus defense. After all, San Miguel is the league’s best offensive team with 97.5 points per game while Ginebra only allows 81.9 points per contest.
That claim on the Gin Kings’ defensive might was further strengthened as they limited the usually high-octane Star to a measly 78.4 points in their semis series.
But the Beermen have also proven to be capable of locking down on defense, limiting opponents to 90.3 points per game, third-best in the league, while also topping the field in the boards (52.7 rebounds) and blocks (5.0).
Both Cone and Austria agreed that defense will be the defining factor in this series and are preparing for what could be a possible war of attrition.
This matchup also presents a defensive duel between Sol Mercado, someone who Cone said was the league’s best defensive guard, against Chris Ross, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Cone and Austria’s reliance on their starters have largely been documented this conference that it shouldn’t come as a surprise that San Miguel (69.0 points) and Ginebra (57.3 points) are sitting at second and third in starters points, respectively.
The question now is whose bench mob will be able to provide reprieve for their first five.
Joe Devance, the squad’s usual fifth guy in the starting lineup, has been relegated to a bench role due to his plantar fasciitis injury in his left foot. Still, his presence and huge contributions came in big for Ginebra in Games 6 and 7 of the series as it topped the Hotshots.
The Devance injury, in a way, seemed like a blessing in disguise as the veteran forward not only gave the Gin Kings a boost from the bench, but also paved the way for the veteran Cruz as well as rookie Kevin Ferrer to step into the starting role.
Marcelo, Aljon Mariano, and Chris Ellis have also had their moments off the bench in the semifinals tiff for Ginebra.
Looking on the other side, Austria hasn’t changed his stance on entrusting the bulk of responsibility to his first five, especially with the Beermen stars showing that they are as formidable as ever.
The same, though, cannot be said with their bench mob, with one from the three-guard hydra of Ross, Alex Cabagnot, and Marcio Lassiter still needed on the floor when the reserves come into the game. RR Garcia is still day-to-day with his shoulder injury, and despite Ronald Tubid, Gabby Espinas, and Yancy de Ocampo’s best efforts, it’s still questionable if they can hang with Ginebra’s young guns off the bench.
That puts more pressure on the San Miguel starters to deliver while their Ginebra counterparts get precious minutes of rest off the floor.
The sixth man
Cone admitted that at times, he felt that Ginebra was already spent, ready to roll over and die. But with one “Ginebra!” chant from the fans and all of a sudden, his team is re-energized before eventually seizing control. That has been the case all year long, with the crowd going wild for every LA Tenorio floater, every Scottie Thompson rebound, or a dunk from Aguilar.
Austria knows how big the crowd comes into play in these situations, and he has told San Miguel to keep its focus on the task at hand and not be distracted by the raucous fan reactions.
Cabagnot and Arwind Santos have also been fearless in hushing the crowd down when the spotlight is focused on them.
But still, it’s a Ginebra crowd we’re talking about, and it’s an audience which has made no qualms in getting loud just to boost its players’ confidence when they need it the most.