San Miguel’s overhauled core can now perform on big stage, show its worth
San Miguel Beer will head into its first Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Finals appearance since the breakup of the so-called Death Five with a mission to create a new era of success for a franchise that is known for making winning a habit.
Wednesday night’s 100-89 victory over the Meralco Bolts in Game 7 of their Philippine Cup semifinal series at Smart Araneta Coliseum sent the Beermen back to the climax of the league’s most important conference, this time with a roster eager to finally savor the sweet taste of success.
“That’s a challenge to them. That is an opportunity for them,” said Beermen coach Leo Austria, referring to the likes of CJ Perez, Jericho Cruz, Vic Manuel, Mo Tautuaa, Rodney Brondial and Simon Enciso.
Austria and the Beermen will face TNT in the best-of-seven championship series which starts on Sunday at the Big Dome with a mixture of talented players who have been chasing the ultimate prize to join holdovers from the recent glory days such as June Mar Fajardo, Marcio Lassiter and Chris Ross.
They were part of the aforementioned “Death Five,” a group of five talented players that included Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot. The quintet, with guidance from Austria, won eight titles between 2015 to 2019 highlighted by five consecutive reigns as All-Filipino kingpins.
But a title eluded the Beermen since their last one back in the 2019 Commissioner’s Cup, resulting in quarterfinal exits in the 2019 Governors’ Cup, 2020 Philippine Cup and 2022 Governors’ Cup and a semifinal defeat to TNT in the 2021 Philippine Cup.
That string of shortcomings prompted changes, as Tautuaa came in from NorthPort for Christian Standhardinger during the 2019 Governors’ Cup, and Perez from Terrafirma before the 2021 campaign.
Then the unthinkable happened in a span of five days in November 2021 when SMB management decided to send Santos to NorthPort for Manuel and Cabagnot to Terrafirma for Enciso, a pair of trades that broke the hearts of Beermen fans.
Changes continued at the start of 2022, when the PBA’s new unrestricted free agent rule led to Brondial leaving Alaska and Cruz bidding goodbye to NLEX to rejoin Austria, their former University Athletic Association of the Philippines coach at Adamson.
It wasn’t until this conference that SMB began to see the results of the slew of changes, topping the eliminations with a 9-2 record, beating Blackwater handily in the quarters before weathering the tough task of facing Meralco in the semis.
Now in the Finals, Austria can only bank on those championship-seekers to show why they were acquired as SMB prepares for a grueling battle against a TNT side that will not easily let go of the Philippine Cup trophy.
“That’s why they are in our team, because we believe in them and it’s up to them to show why we took them,” Austria said in Filipino.
“After all, the players are hungry to win a championship and we have to motivate them about the importance of it. Nobody remembers you for finishing second,” he added.
That doesn’t mean that Death Five remnants are taking a step back.
Fajardo is back to his most valuable player form after missing the 2020 season with an injury followed by a pedestrian 2021-22 campaign, and is contending with Perez for the Best Player of the Conference award.
Ross has taken an active role as one of SMB’s leaders, especially after injuring his right knee earlier in the conference. He has also shown flashes of providing quality minutes. Lassiter, meanwhile, continues to be productive when needed, particularly if he can connect from the outside.
“I’m proud of my teammates because everyone stepped up in [Game 7]. Hopefully we can continue doing well in the Finals because we know it’s not easy to win a championship,” Fajardo said.
“But we will do everything we can to achieve that goal because we know that it’s not an impossible task,” he added.