Passing one character test after another, San Miguel Beer pours into the PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals against TNT carrying an unfamiliar tag—that of underdog.
Strange, since just over two months ago, the Beermen were toasted for tightening their already dynastic grip of the Philippine Cup. Somehow, a sleek KaTropa crew did a good job making that all-Filipino conquest seem ages ago.
“They [were] not 10-1 in the eliminations [for nothing],” San Miguel coach Leo Austria said of TNT. “They are a powerhouse now because of Terrence Jones. We can see that their camaraderie is beyond extraordinary. It seems everybody there is on the same page.”
It did not help the Beermen’s cause, too, that they had a wobbly start to the Commissioner’s Cup, hardly looking like champions when the KaTropa dealt them a 110-97 beating in their lone meeting this conference.
“At the start of the conference, we were struggling. We almost didn’t make it to the quarters,” Austria said on Friday after eliminating Rain or Shine in their semifinal series, 3-1. Before getting to the semifinals, San Miguel had to cram for wins just to get to the playoffs and then needed to overcome NorthPort’s twice-to-beat protection in the quarterfinals.
The Beermen hope they can put those struggles behind them as they battle a KaTropa squad that lost just three times the entire conference in Game 1 of their best-of-seven showdown on Sunday at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
“For us and a lot of people, [KaTropa] are the favorites because of the resurgence of the players,” Austria said.
The two teams, flagship franchises of rival groups San Miguel Corp. and PLDT/Smart, tip it off at 6:30 p.m.
Mark Dickel, TNT’s active consultant who calls the shots along with coach Bong Ravena, believes the KaTropa are more than just a Terrence Jones squad, pointing to the team’s bond and its crack crew of locals as key factors for their success this conference.
“The camaraderie in the team, the interaction between the players, the coaches, the management—everyone. When that’s right, basketball’s fun. So I try to stress that it should be fun every day,” he said.
“When you got a player of Terrence’s caliber, you’d like to think you’ve got a chance, but the key is how the other players mesh with him,” Dickel added. “So that’s really been the key, how we use his talents and get the other guys a good game.”
Jones has cobbled five triple-doubles this conference and has shunned reports of a renewed interest on him by NBA heavyweight Houston Rockets—the team that drafted him in the first round with the 18th pick in 2018—to focus on ending a drought for TNT, which hasn’t won a title since the 2015 edition of this tournament.
“I don’t feel like we’re the favorites. I know we haven’t won [a title] in a long time so we feel we’re the underdogs. We’re going to come in excited and trying to get something special done that hasn’t happened for our organization in a long time,” he said.
Jones will battle fellow former NBA first-rounder Chris McCullough, who rescued the Beermen from their 2-6 start to the conference. It will be the first meeting between the two imports as San Miguel still had Charles Rhodes when it lost to TNT in the elimination round.
McCullough will try to help San Miguel, which is in its 42nd Finals appearance, unlock a gateway to the Grand Slam. A title conquest by the Beermen here will leave the season-ending Governors’ Cup as the final piece for a Triple Crown season.
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