Alas, the San Miguel Beermen are champions once again.
Save for a rally that fell short in Game 2, the reigning back-to-back-to-back Philippine Cup titlists had no problem dispatching frustrated sister team Barangay Ginebra San Miguel in five games to bring home the Perpetual Trophy after their third straight All-Filipino crown.
The Gin Kings' vaunted "never-say-die" spirit was dampened every step of the way, as San Miguel simply "overwhelmed" its rivals, in the words of Ginebra coach Tim Cone. And there was no other way to put it, to be honest.
All the Beermen did was play their game and let the championship fall into their lap. In other words, Leo Austria and his boys were made for this.
Let's begin with SMB's most commanding advantage not only against BGSM but also anybody: June Mar Fajardo. Neutralizing the 6'11" behemoth has been the biggest quandary for every other team since he was drafted five years ago. His unfair mix of size and skill proved to be Austria's trump card against a fairly big Gin Kings frontline.
In all fairness, though, the only player who could realistically challenge Fajardo, Greg Slaughter, played zero minutes the entire series due to injury; lanky Japeth Aguilar could only do so much. Those three Most Valuable Player trophies and five Best Player of the Conference awards weren't for nothing.
If 'The Kraken' wasn't imposing enough, he was rendered more effective by the PBA's top marksmen. Marcio Lassiter is always a 20-point outing waiting to happen, being one, if not the best, three-point shooter in the country. In some matches, he may start cold, but count on him to get hot especially from deep almost in an instant, 'Salt Bae' celebration and all.
Then there's Alex Cabagnot who is still deadly from any spot on the floor. Aside from sharing playmaking duties, the man behind the 'Arrow' celebration has established himself as San Miguel's go-to guy when the game is on the line.
No longer the Beermen's main man, Arwind Santos remains as valuable to the team as any of his younger teammates. At 35, the former league MVP has embraced his role as a steadying presence, always willing to do all the dirty work for the team on and off the floor.
This was evident from his spat with Ginebra rookie Kevin Ferrer, whom the veteran put in his rightful place through his superb play and sly mind games. Never mind us cringing every time he chucks those ill-advised three-pointers, 'Spiderman' does more good than hurt the Beermen's chances.
Santos isn't the only seasoned component in this distinguished squad that relies heavily on its starters.
Despite the limited minutes, Gabby Espinas is likely going to top the league's Sixth Man of the Year honors, if such an award exists. The luxury of having a solid backup PF/center of his caliber to come off the bench has been a boon for the Beermen, especially with promising big man Arnold Van Opstal still finding his purpose on the team. Ronald Tubid had also turned it on this series with his trademark pesky defense and hot shooting from beyond the arc.
Austria sure made us eat our words after we'd questioned his extreme dependence on his powerhouse starting five. As it turned out, he was just doing what he felt was necessary to achieve success. Tough to argue against that strategy now. Up against arguably the greatest tactician in the PBA, Austria didn't let up one bit as he effectively utilized his wards to come out on top.
The biggest factor in SMB's championship run, though, is back-to-back Finals MVP Chris Ross. We even did a separate feature on the journeyman-turned-All-Star to prove our point. The way he elevated his game—particularly his most conspicuous flaw (shooting)—has opened limitless possibilities for his squad on both ends of the floor. Ross was already dangerous with his ability to get to the rim and set up his teammates, before he found his shooting stroke. Once considered an X-Factor that is expected to only provide a spark, the shifty guard now plays like he's the undisputed other half of San Miguel's fearsome 1-2 punch, along with Fajardo.
No doubt, the Gin Kings will be back hungry for redemption as the Commissioner's Cup commences in two weeks. Last year's Governors Cup hero, Justin Brownlee, will be reinforcing them anew and a return bout with SMB is something we're already excited about. For now, we let them lick their wounds. Because they and the rest of the league have only this conference and next to stop a Grand Slam-seeking juggernaut.