The two teams that ended the elimination round of the 2015-2016 PBA Philippine Cup tied for first place, with identical 9-2 slates, continued wearing their big boy pants in the playoffs. As a result, the San Miguel Beermen and the Alaska Aces will have a rematch of last season’s Philippine Cup Finals. It will also be their third championship encounter in four conferences. Tip-off for Game One will take place tomorrow (Jaunary 17) at 5 p.m. at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The Beermen will try to go three-for-three against the Aces while Coach Alex Compton and his boys are looking for retribution, hoping that third time’s the proverbial charm. As tempting as it is, we’re certain that neither of them will say, "nakakasawa na mga mukha niyo," as both squads will be focused on their respective missions: Revenge for Alaska and repeat for San Miguel.
As a preview to these rivals’ latest "last dance," we've listed down the factors that could very well determine who’ll be the PBA 41st season's Philippine Cup champion.
REVENGE FOR ALASKA
Vic Manuel’s arrival
The 28-year-old power forward out of Licab, Nueva Ecija has come into his own since getting picked ninth overall in the 2012 draft by Globalport. He is currently averaging 14.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg—vastly improved numbers compared to his 8 ppg and 4 rpg output in the first three seasons of his PBA career.
Arguably one of the league’s best post-up players at the moment, the 6’4” Manuel will play a major role for his team if Alaska is indeed bound to go all the way. He’s expected to be more effective owing to June Mar Fajardo’s injury (more on that later). A Manuel explosion might force SMB to abandon their high octane offense and concentrate on negating the Alaska big man’s potent inside game.
The Beast at his beast
After his teammates took out their wallets to chip in for the P41,600 fine he got slapped with in Game Two of their semifinals duel versus Globalport, Calvin Abueva started playing really inspired basketball. He led the way in the two of the next three games to get rid of the Batang Pier and basically ushered Alaska into the last dance.
In those outings, the Beast tallied a total of 34 points and 22 boards. Going into the championship, a Calvin Abueva who’s perfectly in control of his raging brand of basketball—maximum effort on both ends of the floor with enough swag to piss off the opponents but not enough to draw the ire of the refs—is a bad omen for SMB. Of course the lesson to learn here is we should all find a job wherein our co-workers will shell out cash for us when we get in trouble.
Alaska's three-guard attack
SMB is feared for their star-studded lineup. Alaska, however, is starting to prove that their roster might just be just as potent as the Beermen’s. A big reason why the Aces are gaining ground on their nemesis is the firepower they are recently getting from their trio of point guards, namely Chris Banchero, RJ Jazul, and Jayvee Casio.
Banchero, a natural point guard, has transformed himself into a scorer, evident in his 12.8 ppg semis average against Globalport. His new penchant for getting buckets, combined with Jazul’s reliable sniping and Casio’s potential to catch fire on any given night, makes the Aces a dreadful team to defend. Just ask Terrence Romeo.
In Game Two of the semifinals, Banchero, Jazul, and Casio got hot and scored 18, 17, and 13 points, respectively, helping the Aces come up with a 24-point blowout win. Getting these three guards going in the championship will afford Alaska a big step towards taking home the trophy.
The hunger games
In their last two finals battles, Alaska lost to San Miguel—one was a seven-game heartbreaker and the other via clean sweep. We’re pretty sure the fire inside Coach Compton and his boys is burning hotter than Emily Ratajkowski’s Instagram, as they hunger for revenge.
The two losses that the Aces suffered at the hands of SMB are enough fuel for the players to adopt the "Magpapakamatay kami para sa bola, ‘wag lang matalo ulit" mantra. Someone fully motivated to get back at his former conqueror is highly dangerous. Look at what happened in Pacquiao-Marquez 4. Don’t be surprised if Alaska gets the KO this time.
June Mar's shock injury
In Game 6 of the San Miguel-Rain Or Shine semifinal series, SMB’s star center was carried out of the playing court after ROS’ Jireh Ibanes inadvertently hit his left knee during a box out play. You could just hear the gasp of every Pinoy hoops fan as the country’s best center went down. It was later revealed that Fajardo heard something pop as he took the blow. The most recent reports say he suffered a partial ACL tear and is definitely out of the finals.
Fajardo is the only player that the Aces can’t guard. Without the threat of June Mar’s monstrous conference numbers of 26 ppg and 14.8 rpg and his occasional 40-point and 20-rebound outbursts, there’s a chance that Alaska will face an SMB team that’s been sapped half of its power.
REPEAT FOR SAN MIGUEL
Fired up Beermen
With June Mar hurt, the Beermen might get all fired up, eager to prove to everyone that their 6’11” super center isn’t the only reason why they’ve been winning. The incident could also inspire them to put out a title-winning performance dedicated to Fajardo, who has carried them so many times before.
Without Fajardo, SMB is still a superb team made up of elite ballers. ROS found that out the hard way after the Beermen ran over Coach Yeng Guiao’s wards in Game Six of the semis, ousting the Elasto Painters in the tournament sans June Mar’s herculean services for most of the second half. Even if SMB’s two-time MVP can’t suit up, this series is still up for grabs and San Miguel, given they play in high spirits, can still turn the tide in their favor.
Arwind in his MVP form
We’ve been told that Arwind Santos’s constant reminder to June Mar during big games is to trust his teammates. Now that Fajardo’s in pain, the stage is set for the Spiderman to let everybody know what he’s talking about. The former King Tamaraw’s Philippine Cup averages aren’t too shabby, tallying 15 points and eight boards per game. If he can increase those already decent numbers, he might just lead SMB to the Promised Land, the same way he did in last year’s Philippine Cup wherein he was awarded the Finals MVP plum.
Super Marcio's super play
Marcio Lassiter is often cited as one of the best shooters in Philippine basketball. However, he has yet to have a crowning moment to back that bold claim up. Sure he’s had a great game here and there, but we want a performance that’ll be a go-to topic in inuman sessions. With June Mar our, Super Marcio could take up the cudgels for the Beermen and give us a slew of marvelous games that could deliver SMB its 22nd championship.
San Miguel has Alaska's number
The truth is that this SMB squad has owned the Aces in the finals. First, they outslugged Alaska in seven games to win the 2014-2015 Philippine Cup, then demolished the Fred Uytengsu-owned outfit in four games to snag the Governors’ Cup in the same season. Stylistically, SMB is a bad matchup for Alaska. It could be as simple as that. Forget analytics, forget the individual stats—the Beermen might be the Aces' ultimate kontrapelo, just like Marquez to Pacquiao or Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach to Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez.
Serving the Aces a dose of their own medicine
Aside from their tenacious play, Alaska is known for having the kind of players that can get under an opponent's skin. We're talking about toughies like Manuel, Abueva, and Ping Exciminiano. The three have successfully distracted opposing players in the past, leading to wins.
The thing is, San Miguel also has players in the same mold. Chris Ross, David Semerad, and Santos won't back down and will taunt you with physicality. Gabby Espinas—Abueva's former frontcourt buddy—also knows a thing or two about extracurricular tactics. And let's not forget about the not-so-saintly Ronald "The Saint" Tubid who has been doing this kind of thing since his college days with the University of the East in the UAAP.
Simply put, the Beermen has the angas to match up with the Aces. If SMB manages to outplay Alaska in the psychological front, the defending champs will have an easier time hoisting the repeat banner.
Whatever happens in the end, we’re 99.9-percent sure that SMB and Alaska are going to give us an entertaining back-and-forth series. Thankfully, Commissioner Chito Narvasa didn’t make it a one-game championship. Man, we hate that rule, doing one-game series during the playoffs (see: quarterfinals).
Anyway, fists up, hoops brothers! Let’s enjoy this one.