The 2016 PBA Philippine Cup Finals was an awesome, awesome, awesome series. And just to make ourselves clear, it was freakin' AWESOME. The battle was supposed to be over after Alaska snagged the first three games of the best-of-seven championship duel. And before San Miguel’s historic 96-89 Game 7 victory, not even the world’s geekiest hoop junkie could name a basketball team that came back from a 0-3 series deficit to win a title.
Team Cerveza achieved the "beeracle" their legions of fans had hoped for. How did Coach Leo Austria’s boys do it? Well, it’ll take us 575,331,872 inuman sessions to cover all the bases. In the meantime, we’ll try to provide the answers by writing down the crucial factors that we, the self-proclaimed hoops experts of FHM HQ, think led to San Miguel’s record-setting feat.
The importance of that gutsy Game 4 win
From Games 1 to 3, the Alaska Aces proved to be the steadier of two in crunch time, winning those hard-fought battles with their endgame poise and offensive savvy. Coach Alex Compton managed his charges’ minutes magnificently, not letting anyone get past 30 minutes on the floor. In contrast, Coach Austria was forced to play his stars for longer stretches.
In Game 4, however, with their backs against the wall, and trailing by 12 in the final canto, the Beermen rallied to send the game to overtime.
This time though, the defending champs outlasted the Aces, 110-104. With this confidence-boosting victory, the Beermen bought June Mar more time to recover, opening the door for his much-awaited return in Game 5. In Marcio Lassiter and Gabby Espinas, Coach Leo also rediscovered new offensive weapons to rely on as the two contributed 26 and 21 huge points respectively.
The Kraken unleashed
To no one's surprise, the two-time and reigning PBA MVP returned in a limited role in Game 5. While he wasn't expected to do much given his condition, The Kraken nonetheless contributed immensely to the cause, scoring 13, 16, and 21 points in Games 5, 6, and 7 respectively and anchoring the team's lockdown interior defense.
In the final two games, Fajardo’s and-1 assaults in the third quarters paved the way for SMB's most decisive wins in the series. A picture of him should be placed beside the word "unstoppable" in the dictionary in honor of his heroics.
Austria outcoached Compton
After stealing Game 4 from the Aces, Coach Austria seemed to have found the winning formula to accomplish the impossible. The lineups he put on the floor from Games 5 to 7 outshined Compton’s. He figured out who were the best players to use based on the opposing team’s substitution pattern. The primary reason behind the turnaround was playing June Mar in spurts and the SMB reserves' excellent play. Shout-outs to Rondal Tubid, Brian Heruela, Yancy de Ocampo, and Espinas!
One glaring piece of evidence that showed Austria’s mid-series adjustments befuddled Alaska’s coaching was the bizarre three timeouts the Aces called at the very start of Game 7. Compton resorting to such tactic was like someone with dengue going to an albularyo for treatment.
Alaska's cold shooting
In Games 5 and 6, the Aces had a malnourished three-point shooting percentage of 18-percent. In Game 7, they ate plain lugaw and upped their long-range shooting clip to a still-dismal 25-percent. Shooting the ball like the Brick Brothers DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard just won’t cut it in a championship series against an elite team like San Miguel. Maybe Fred Uytengsu should send his boys to Korea for some outside shooting training before the Commissioner’s Cup starts on February 10.
Zoning out Alaska
San Miguel potent zone defense forced the Aces shoot their way out of the series. It was the defensive scheme that won the Beermen their 22nd PBA crown.
The Aces were 17 of 83 from three-point land in the last three games as SMB's bigs put the pressure on the Aces’ frontcourt triumvirate Sonny Thoss, Vic Manuel, and Calvin Abueva. As a result, The Beast played frustrated basketball the rest of the way while the Muscle Man, although still productive in Game 6, only scored three pitiful points in the decider.
Finals MVP Chris Ross
Chris Ross averaged just eight points, four rebounds, and four assists in the series—hardly Finals MVP-type numbers. But in their four wins, his defense, hustle, and timely scoring (mostly over a hapless JVee Casio in the post) took center stage. He compiled nine steals in the last three games. His near triple-double of 11 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists in Game 4 was sublime. And his 21 points, including four back-breaking triples, in Game 7 helped seal the deal for the Beermen.Ross was the game-changer; he basically "out-beasted" everyone when it mattered, including The Beast himself.
San Miguel's super subs
With humongous shoes to fill (both literally and metaphorically), Espinas and de Ocampo patrolled the paint while Fajardo was recuperating. Game 4 was the former's time to shine, scoring 21 points to help his squad pull off a nerve-racking overtime win minus The Kraken. Two games later, Yancy provided the scoring punch while Fajardo was on the sidelines, coming up with 14 markers. The duo's play on both ends of the floor enabled Coach Austria to manage Fajardo's playing time better.
Super Marcio coming through!
We said in our preview that in order for SMB to bag the trophy, Lassiter would have to give us a slew of memorable games. Man, did he deliver.
In Game 4, his 26 points and clutch treys salvaged the season for the Beermen. In Game 6, he once again had 26 markers, putting the game out of Alaska's reach with four makes from long distance. And in Game 7, his 15 points were ample support for his teammates who were rolling offensively that night.
In this series, Marcio proved he’s one of the best scorers in the PBA, a consummate professional who plays like an all-star when it counts.
San Miguel's rejuvenated team play
In the last two games of this historic championship series, San Miguel played with a synergy reminiscent of the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors' play. The passes were quick and crisp, the players knew where to go, and everybody was looking out for each other. Their ball movement was better than it’s ever been.
We were used to seeing the Beermen just pound the ball inside to Fajardo, who usually plays for at least 40 minutes. We were accustomed to seeing the stacked roster come up with individual plays to win ball games.
But in Games 5, 6, and 7, something in the team changed. They started trusting each other. How did that come about? It may have something to do with the Beermen's pivotal Game 4 win minus Fajardo (yes, that again). They realized they could beat Alaska without their two-time MVP. Fajardo's absence also helped compel the coaching staff to utilize the bench more, leading to the emergence of magic hugots like Espinas, de Ocampo, and Tubid. More players contributing = more confusion for Alaska's defense.
Suddenly, it's as if San Miguel was the one breathing life to Alaska's we-not-me mantra. If the Beermen continue to play with the kind of teamwork and undeniable swag they displayed in the series, they'll be a lot closer to another historic feat: a second Grand Slam for the franchise and just the sixth in PBA history.
To San Miguel and their fans, bottoms up! You truly deserve this one.