Led by a rejuvenated Kelly Williams, Ranidel De Ocampo, and Jayson Castro, who each had 18 points, TNT is on the verge of dethroning the reigning back-to-back All-Filipino champions. This, despite SMB being headlined by a trio of MVPs (including Finals) and DOPYs, one of the PBA's deadliest shooters, and arguably the best clutch performer in the league.
Although upon closer inspection, the most formidable starting unit in modern-day Philippine basketball might not be so overwhelming as many thought them to be. FHM tallied the minutes each San Miguel starter through Games 1 to 5 (via RealGM), calculated their average playing times, and highlighted their longest stints:
Following their latest loss to the KaTropa, is it possible that the most overworked lineup in the PBA is actually starting to get winded?
During their opening game versus the Star Hotshots, head coach Leo Austria drew flak for not fielding in rookies Arnold Van Opstal and Rashawn McCarthy, albeit even sparingly. Now it looks like critics may have a point about Austria's tendency to play it safe by being too dependent on his strong five.
The Beermen's official sixth man is Gabby Espinas, who is norming 17 minutes per game this series, half of the "least" utilized starter's (Chris Ross) stretch. It comes as no surprise that he's the only bench player to crack double figures in minutes played, with RR Garcia and Ronald Tubid fortunate enough to limber up in their limited time on the court.
Another glaring statistic is how designated shooters Alex Cabagnot and Marcio Lassiter are leading the team in playing time. We understand that these types of players need to stay on the floor and keep firing to get themselves going, but not to the point where they run out of ammo. Both Cabagnot and Lassiter are converting at a horrendous clip from the field, and the reason might be fatigue from their extended run.
Austria may have forgotten that team captain Arwind Santos is his eldest statesman (Yancy de Ocampo doesn't count), continuing to treat him as the workhorse he was 10 years ago with three quarters worth of on-court responsibility. Meanwhile, Jay-R Reyes has logged in a total of 10 minutes and Van Opstal has rotted on the sidelines with five DNPs throughout the semis.
Do the names Keith Agovida and Brian Huruela ring a bell? Both capable acquisitions from the league's cellar dwellers (Huruela from Blackwater Elite, Agovida from Mahindra Floodbuster), the supposed up-and-comers have been reduced to cheerleaders biding their time until they are called up. Knowing their coach, the two would be lucky to be inserted in the waning seconds of a 50-point blowout.
Is Austria afraid to lose? Is this the reason he is sticking to his main guns, even if it means depriving Cabagnot, Lassiter, Santos, June Mar Fajardo and Ross of fresh legs (especially in the current, rigorous PBA schedule), and delaying the development of his younger wards? On the brink of elimination against TNT, the SMB tactician might want to ignore his gut instinct when it comes to his rotation and put his faith in his less-heralded players.
Who knows; the spark plug he needs to rally from this tough deficit might be lying in that crummy bench of unfamiliar faces, waiting to be unleashed.