PBA coaches today have emulated their NBA counterparts—opting to come up with their strongest unit to start and, most likely, end the game as well. Only Yeng Guiao perhaps has retained the unconventional, old-school approach of keeping his opponents guessing who among his players are going for the opening tip.
As such, the bench has become a critical factor, especially in a long series. With both teams playing alternate days and the starters normally logging 30-plus minutes, the reserves need to provide the lift when they spell the starters to ensure that the team continues to do well.
But there are special cases when the reserves don't just serve as fillers, and have actually become game heroes themselves, especially in the course of winning a championship. FHM lists down some of the more memorable performances of bench players during a Finals series.
Ato Agustin (San Miguel Beer vs Purefoods Hotdogs; Game 3, 1989 All-Filipino Conference)
Many may not know this but Agustin was a third-string backup point guard at SMB on his rookie year, playing behind Hector Calma and Franz Pumaren. Already a bonafide superstar in the Philippine Amateur Basketball League, he remained patient and waited for his turn. Coach Norman Black would field in Agustin whenever he needed some spark off the bench, which was what the latter did in their championship series against Purefoods. With the San Miguel precariously leading, 88-86, early in the fourth quarter, the "Atom Bomb" played only nine minutes, but delivered five of his seven total points, plus a couple of crucial defensive stops on Jojo Lastimosa to give the Beermen a 97-87 cushion with less than six minutes remaining. That key adjustment of Black going small with Calma and Elmer Reyes broke the backs of the Hotdogs, winning 122-109, and seizing the series lead, 2-1, en route to the title.
Willie Generalao (Presto Tivolis vs Purefoods Hotdogs; Game 7, 1990 All-Filipino Conference)
It was supposed to be Purefoods' first championship since the franchise joined the league in 1988. They had Baby Dalupan as their coach; Presto's main man, Allan Caidic, couldn't play in the clincher because of a hand injury; and the Hotdogs had momentum after winning Game 6. But the Tivolis' veterans pulled through, led by Arnie Tuadles and Manny Victorino’' combined 58 points, Abe King’s 14 rebounds, and the "Little General," Coach Jimmy Mariano's "magic bunot." Up by just four, 49-45 halfway through the third canto, Generalao checked in, scored eight points and swiped two possessions, leading a decisive 22-10 breakaway to give Presto a 71-55 lead that they never relinquished. Willie, who was recovering from a liver ailment a month before the Finals, relived his glory years and collaborated with his co-elder statesmen to prove their worth against the up-and-coming young superstars of Purefoods.
Pido Jarencio (Gordon's Gin Boars vs Alaska Milkmen; Game 3, 1997 Commissioner's Cup)
Gordon's Gin was up, 2-0 in the series against Alaska, but fortunes were most likely to reverse after Chris King pulled his left hamstring late in the previous match and was a doubtful starter for next game. True enough, King didn't enter until the final minutes of the ball game as the Boars relied heavily on their local crew of sophomore Marlou Aquino, veteran Terry Saldaña, and streak-shooting Jarencio. Gordon's Gin struck hardest in the third quarter to take the lead, with Jarencio making it rain from beyond the arc (seven out of eight tries) to finish with a sizzling 23 points. His heroics, including a crucial trey in the final minutes, coupled with King's inside basket, sealed the win for the Boars, 87-86, and secured a commanding 3-0 lead that virtually took the starch out of the hapless Milkmen.
Chris Tan (Sta. Lucia Realtors vs. San Miguel Beermen; Game 6, 2001 Governors' Cup)
It was only the second time that Sta. Lucia have reached the Finals, succumbing to San Miguel in five games the season before (Commissioner's Cup). Few expected them to reverse their fortunes in a virtual rematch with the Beermen. With Best Import awardee Damien Owens in the forefront, the Realtors surprisingly led the entire series, prevailing in Games 1, 3, and 5. Needing just a victory for win their first-ever franchise title, coach Black turned to his stepson, Tan, who was shooting blanks the entire series (missing all eight three-point shots). He shocked everyone by taking and making a huge trey shot with 3.3 seconds left in the game, giving the Realtors the advantage, 75-72. Tan ended the game with eight points and two rebounds, but none bigger than the dagger that gave SLR the championship. Black, during the post-game interview, said he couldn't believe his player took the shot, but was happy that the latter proved his mettle as a bonafide PBA player.
Jireh Ibañes (Rain or Shine Elasto Painters vs B-Meg Llamados; Game 3, 2012 Governors' Cup)
We shouldn't have included someone from a Yeng Guiao team because of his coaching style mentioned above. But it's hard to ignore Rain or Shine's longest tenured player, Ibañes. The series was tied at one game apiece, but the Elasto Painters had the significant handicap after losing star Paul Lee to a shoulder injury in the second match. With Guiao boldly predicting before the game that RoS would still win it all even without the "Leethal Weapon," it was up to his gritty bunch of young guys to prove him right. Ibañes set the tone in the first quarter, scoring eight of his 12 points to keep the E-Painters afloat and later came back to play solid defense against superstar James Yap, limiting him to a season-low seven points, allowing RoS to break away in the third stanza, and build an imposing 70-52 lead with a quarter remaining. Jireh's two-way game was ideal for the E-Painters' brand of play that affected the Llamados both physically and mentally.
Jayjay Helterbrand (Barangay Ginebra San Miguel vs Meralco Bolts; Game 4, 2016 Governors' Cup)
Just about the same time last year, Helterbrand celebrated his 40th birthday with a bang. Ginebra was down 1-2, in their best-of-seven series against Meralco and badly needed to win Game 4 to preserve its chances of winning the first title in eight years. In a rollercoaster game that saw BGSM's halftime lead of 11 points disappear and then falling behind by 16 in the third, coach Tim Cone was becoming desperate. He took a gamble on the seldom-used 2009 MVP, fielding him late in the quarter, and saw the Fast deliver 11 clutch points in the fourth, enabling the Kings to roar back from a 58-74 deficit with a 14-0 run, cutting the lead down to two. And with the frenzied crowd cheering Ginebra lustily, the team pulling off a magical 88-86 victory to tie the series. Helterbrand turning back the hands of time couldn't be more special.