Barangay Ginebra certainly had its hands full in completing the franchise’s first championship repeat in PBA history.
With a 4-3 win in the classic best-of-seven Governors’ Cup series carved out in front of record-setting audiences in the last three games at cavernous Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan, there were times—a lot of it, actually—when the Gin Kings’ legions of fans were sitting on pins and needles.
Even coach Tim Cone, who has seen so many battles in a decorated career, admitted to being nervous a lot of times with the gung-ho Bolts refusing to go away and fighting to the last ounce of their strength.
But, believe it or not, Cone cherished those moments.
Moments after winning the 20th title in 32 Finals appearances of his career, Cone talked extensively about the game, about the thrilling series and then saved a few minutes with the Inquirer to talk about the future—and a lot of that bright future is cast on the 7-foot shadow of Ginebra star Greg Slaughter.
Slaughter certainly had his moments of brilliance against the Bolts during the Finals series.
But there were also moments where he seemed lost, moments where Meralco pounced on his presence and managed to overturn Ginebra’s massive advantage in size to the Kings’ undoing.
Cone absorbed all of those situations like a sponge, those instances now stored in his vast memory bank as he makes a long-overdue trip back to the United States on Monday to be with family and celebrate his latest conquest there.
“Right now teams are trying to mismatch him,” Cone said as he obliged fans for selfies. “Teams have been trying to play us small, most especially in this series and these are the things we have to learn how to handle.
“Teams have been throwing things at us that we’re asking ourselves: ‘What do we do?’” he went on. “But the more we have those situations, the more we develop as a team.”
All eyes on SMB
The season started with all eyes on San Miguel Beer, on its giant June Mar Fajardo, and on their Grand Slam bid. There was one familiar question throughout the season: Was there a side out there that could stop the Beermen from completing a Triple Crown sweep?
The Beermen certainly made everyone doubt there was. San Miguel dusted off Ginebra in the Philippine Cup finale and then dismissed TNT KaTropa in the Commissioner’s Cup title series.
The table was set for a Grand Slam.
Beer was being chilled even before tip off of the Governors’ Cup in anticipation of a celebration for the franchise’s second Grand Slam. Interestingly enough, Meralco’s Norman Black steered the team to its first season sweep in 1989.
All San Miguel needed to do was sign up a great import and stay injury-free.
The Beermen failed at both as import woes and a leg injury to Fajardo helped doom them to a sixth place finish in the eliminations, and—you guessed it—a twice-to-win handicap against Barangay Ginebra in the quarterfinals.
It wasn’t even close, that playoff game.
And Ginebra had everything in place once it sealed a Finals stint: Cone was coaching at his best, LA Tenorio was making a case as the best point guard in the conference despite a nagging elbow injury, Justin Brownlee was as deadly as last season, and Slaughter had returned from injury and was terrorizing the opposition in the shaded lane.
“I feel that we’re just trying to exploit Greg,” Cone said of his center, admitting that he held back in playing him extended minutes in the championship because he “still didn’t know what to do in some situations.”
“I feel like I haven’t exploited him yet,” Cone went on. “They were playing small and we couldn’t handle that at that time. But we’re learning. We learned a lot in this series.”
Slaughter played in his first Finals series and went on to bag his first Best Player of the Conference citation.
Tenorio, on the other hand, was the Finals MVP for the second straight season, while Japeth Aguilar has shown dramatic improvement ever since Cone got on board and has evolved into a dependent player on both ends, not just the 6-foot-9, athletic guy trying to knock down the three-point shot.
Aguilar has metamorphosed into a dominant power forward, challenging every enemy attack in the shaded lane and shying away from those three-pointers.
While talk in the final three games of the title series also centered on the Draft set at Robinson’s Place in Ermita on Sunday, where the Beermen now have the chance to snag 6-foot-7 Filipino-German Christian Standhardinger and come up with their own version of a twin-tower combo, Cone wasn’t into any of that.
He feels that, with Slaughter, Aguilar, Tenorio and the valuable experience he gained as a coach, Ginebra has what it takes to remain dominant.
More to come
“You can always have pieces added,” Cone said when asked of the Draft, where they pick 11th overall, second-to-last in the first round. “But we still have guys who are developing and we’re pretty much OK.
“I think we can challenge San Miguel a little bit,” he said. “June Mar is unbelievable, but the more we have him (Slaughter) and the more we see things (like the small-ball ploy of Meralco), the more we develop him and the more we improve as a team.”
So it wasn’t out of just championship elation, or his amazement that the last three games of the title series was watched by close to 140,000 fans, but Cone certainly had his basis when he addressed the crowd in the din of the Ginebra celebration and said:
“We’re not going to stop here, we have more championships to win.”
Things are looking UP