Beermen, Gin Kings start duel
San Miguel Beer got to the Finals almost by birthright. The Beermen are, after all, the two-time defending champions of the PBA Philippine Cup and it seemed fair that if they were to miss out on the perpetual trophy, it will have to be because some team knocked San Miguel off its lofty perch in a championship series.
That team, it turns out, could not have taken a more contrasting route.
Barangay Ginebra, though emerging from last season on a high after winning the Governors’ Cup, sputtered on its way to the playoffs. It took time before the Gin Kings could stitch together a winning run and even when they did, very few figured they could go all the way.
But they somehow found a way. Past Alaska and its twice-to-beat advantage. Past Star and its early 2-0 semifinal series cushion. They battled through do-or-die matches. They battled through injuries. “Next man up,” exhorted coach Tim Cone when a player became unavailable.
They’re in the Finals now and the next team up is San Miguel Beer.
“We’re the underdogs here,” said Cone, who admitted being “scared” at the weapons San Miguel carries into the best-of-seven showdown that kicks off Friday at Mall of Asia Arena.
So he wants a headstart in the series.
“I think it’s always crucial if you take Game 1 because you get to dictate the series,” said Cone. “We lost Game 1 to Star and a tough Game 2, but you don’t want to put yourself in the situation where you have to try to overcome long odds.”
The Kings are all that stand between the Beermen and the milestone they covet: a third straight Philippine Cup title that awards them the perpetual trophy.
“Even before the start of the [Philippine Cup], we always wanted to win the perpetual trophy,” said San Miguel skipper Arwind Santos in Filipino.
And it is going to take a lot to stop the Beermen.
San Miguel has the June Mar Fajardo luxury. The 6-foot-10 center is on course to win yet another Best Player of the Conference trophy and his presence affords San Miguel a consistent mismatch when things get a little too tight for comfort.
“We still have to figure out how to stop June Mar,” said Cone. He has been successful the last few times he tried, though. Ginebra froze Fajardo in the semifinal decider in last season’s Governors Cup. And in their only game this season, Fajardo was held to single digits.
Ginebra plans to do more of the same again.
“We’ve gone this far by playing defense as a team and we don’t see that changing in this series,” said LA Tenorio in Filipino.
But it takes very little to free up space for the reigning three-time MVP. Marcio Lassiter, Alex Cabagnot and Ronald Tubid can reel in defenders by making their outside shots, allowing Fajardo to pillage the shaded lane.
“I know the other coaches are thinking of how to stop June Mar. [But] we keep on winning not only because of June Mar, but also his teammates,” said coach Leo Austria.
Ginebra, despite the absence of Greg Slaughter and the doubtful status of Joe Devance, won’t go into the title duel unarmed. Japeth Aguilar, Tenorio, Scottie Thompson and Sol Mercado have the talent to take the fight to San Miguel. And the semifinals against Star uncovered young reliables in Kevin Ferrer, Aljon Mariano and Jervy Cruz.
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