We may have seen the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok lead for the last time when they stole Game 1 of the ongoing PBA Philippine Cup Finals. Two matches later, the San Miguel Beermen are up 2-1 in their best-of-seven series, looking like a group that isn't about to surrender its advantage anytime soon.
Using the term "stole" to describe the opening victory should give one an idea of how big an underdog Magnolia is. If not for a furious 20-point rally from the Hotshots in the first outing (and you could say the missed out-of-bounds call on Rafi Reavis), the Beermen are supposed to be a win away from their fourth-straight All-Filipino championship.
The story of each meeting between the sister teams has been almost the same: San Miguel comes out swinging or, in the case of Sunday's tiebreaker, unleashes a back-breaking 15-0 run to pull away from Magnolia for good. Save for a couple of stretches, SMB has been its dominating self all throughout the season and made light work of formidable squads TNT KaTropa (1-0) and Barangay Ginebra San Miguel (4-1) in the playoffs. It's crazy to think that Christian Standhardinger is only joining this local hoops dynasty next conference.
Coach Chito Victolero and his boys aren't bad by any measure, rather, this is just a case of the obvious: they're simply overmatched.
Marcio Lassiter (20.3 ppg), Chris Ross, Alex Cabagnot (15.7 ppg), and even Arwind Santos (19 ppg) have the superstar talent to be "the man" on separate teams, but choose to play for a collective goal, behind the league's best player in reigning four-time MVP June Mar Fajardo (21.3 ppg), and under the tutelage of underrated mentor Leo Austria.
If you thought the Beermen were scary before, the most accomplished franchise is only showing its final form (not factoring in Standhardinger). The top-heavy crew has become virtually invincible once its seldom-used bench started clicking, evident during Game 3 that resulted in a blowout (111-87). Brian Heruela, Gabby Espinas, and Matt Ganuelas-Rosser have all proven their worth by translating their limited playing time into quality minutes. Heruela has scored in double figures in his previous two bouts (10.5 ppg), while Espinas (9 pts last meeting) has given Fajardo the luxury of extended breathers as a solid inside presence.
As it stands, Magnolia is finding it hard facing a San Miguel team that is firing on all cylinders, even more so without its top defender (Marc Pingris, ACL) and third-best guard (Justin Melton, hamstring). Paul Lee (10.7 ppg), who hurt his finger last time around, confirmed he is suiting up for Game 4 on Wednesday, but that won't be enough against SMB's three-headed backcourt monster. Magnolia's Rome dela Rosa (8 ppg) can only do so much with his defensive chores, while Jio Jalalon's semifinals magic has yet to carry over in the next round (6.3 ppg).
Remember when we said "Just give the damn trophy to the San Miguel Beermen already" in our NLEX feature? It may have been made as a joke back then, but with the way the series has been unfolding, the next two outings could end up being mere formality for the fourpeat-seeking Philippine Cup titleholders. That's a statement we may all have to take seriously now.