In absence of a six-time MVP, Aguilar and Erram are battling for the shaded lane spotlight
In a tournament that used to be the kingdom of one June Mar Fajardo, it is but natural for attention to gravitate toward those big men scurrying to fill the void left by the absent PBA Philippine Cup overlord.
And there have been a lot. But with the all-Filipino tournament reaching its Finals, only two are left standing.
Barangay Ginebra has Japeth Aguilar, who is slowly finding the form that earned him a Finals MVP in last season’s Governors’ Cup after swallowing gulps of air early in the conference. TNT, meanwhile, has Poy Erram, a defensive anchor who is slowly discovering he has a three-point weapon in his arsenal. The two have grabbed the spotlight in the shaded lane in the absence of the six-time MVP Fajardo, whose leg injury doomed San Miguel Beer’s hopes of winning this tournament a sixth straight time.
And it was Aguilar who established himself early in the Finals, his 25 points and 16 rebounds keying a 100-94 overtime victory in Game 1 last Sundat at Angeles University Foundation powered by Smart 5G.
“My focus is on defense,” the five-time PBA champion told reporters here. “The opportunities (to score) just happened to come my way so I just hustled [to make the most out if them].”
One such hustle came in transition, when he raced down court and took a pass from LA Tenorio to deliver the dagger slam.
Erram, for his part, was clearly adjusting to his time in the grandest stage of them all. In his last brush with playoff basketball, Erram was playing for NLEX and getting shown the door by a NorthPort squad that needed to overcome the Road Warriors’ twice-to-beat edge.
So it was understandable if he was hardly in any mood for a chit-chat.
“We had lapses,” he said rather tersely. “We just gave too much help (on other players) leaving Japeth open [a lot].”
Erram, perhaps the TNT’s second-best defender next to two-way guard Ray Parks Jr., was on the bench when rookie Arvin Tolentino made the game-tying basket to send the game to overtime.
“It wasn’t the result that we wanted. It’s a bummer,” he said with a long face.
Erram finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds in Game 1, a slight improvement from those 8 and 8 nights he was punching in during the Final Four. And it should have been an adequate production if not for two things: The fact that TNT wound up losing and the fact the Ginebra won largely due to Aguilar’s huge night.
Aguilar, meanwhile, seems to get better as the season wears on. Ginebra coach Tim Cone said there were games in the elimination when the match would already be decided and Cone would leave Aguilar on the floor to help him get back in shape.
Aguilar was averaging 12.4 points and 9.8 rebounds entering the FInals.
The matchup has taken up the narrative up front with the absence of Fajardo, San Miguel Beer’s dominant center and the league’s six-time Most Valuable Player.
But the rivals have no intention of making it all about themselves. Instead, the two former Ateneans are focusing on team goals. And the ultimate team goal is the ultimate prize. the PBA’s most prestigious trophy.
Aguilar and the Kings have drawn first blood. But there was nothing in the way they won that gave the athletic big man any indication that TNT is simply going to roll over.
“It’s going to be a tough series so I really have to maintain [a high] level of performance,” Aguilar said.
Erram, meanwhile, would like to simply forget Game 1 and focus on leveling the best-of-seven affair.
“We have nothing else to do but move on,” he said.
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