ONLY two teams had succeeded in beating Alaska Milk in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup - defending champion San Mig Coffee, which beat the Aces twice, and yes, Air21 - the same team the Aces are facing at the start of the playoffs.
No wonder Luigi Trillo is ill at ease.
“It won’t be an easy game (against Air21),” said the Alaska coach as his top-seeded team prepares for the quarterfinal matchup against the eighth-seeded Express on Saturday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
“But the exciting thing is we have a twice-to-beat advantage. So we don’t have to think of the next game but just focus on playing them on Saturday,” he added.
The Aces finished the 14-game eliminations with a league-best 11-3 record, the best performance of the Uytengsu-owned franchise in the post-Tim Cone era.
In contrast, the Express didn’t clinch a playoff berth until last Saturday when they beat the Petron Boosters, 95-91 in overtime after coming back from as much as a 17-point deficit.
The Express may not have the talent depth the Alaska has, but coach Franz Pumaren has a strong inside presence in Best Import candidate Michael Dunigan and a deadly wingman in Nino `KG’ Canaleta.
Air21 held Alaska to just 68 points in their March 15 encounter, the lowest production of the Aces this conference as they missed the services of top point guard JV Casio due to a knee injury.
But with Casio now back in action, Trillo said he’s confident they have the tools to match up against the Express, who has veteran guard Mike Cortez running the show in the point guard position.
“Air21 has a ton of role players who could help Dunigan, KG, and Mike Cortez. The game against Air21 boils down to execution. The good news for us is we now have JV, who I should say is a better defender and decision-maker on the floor,” explained the 37-year-old Alaska mentor.
The 5-foot-10 playmaker out of De La Salle averaged 7.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in the 10 games he played for the Aces this conference.
But he’ll definitely have his hands full defending fellow La Sallian Cortez, who is eight years older and has proven that he can still compete at a high level by averaging 10 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists this conference.
Trillo explained they also have to solve the inside-outside game of the Express, who basically anchor much of their plays on Dunigan at the post or Canaleta at the perimeter.
The 6-foot-6 Canaleta has averaged 30 points, six rebounds, and six three-point shots made in his last three games, including a high of 37 points on 9-of-18 shooting from beyond the arc against the Boosters.
“Air21 executes well at the half-court set using their two guards, Dunigan at the post and KG as recipient of passes in the perimeter. We’re a bit worried with their half-court offense though we’ll have a lot of guys we can use against Dunigan,” said Trillo.