AIR21 did manage to nose out Alaska in their lone encounter in the eliminations of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup.
But coach Franz Pumaren thinks the biggest challenge for the Express going into their playoff duel with the Aces is on how to match up with Alaska’s deep roster.
“Of course, if you look at the playoffs, the atmosphere is different. And one mistake, you’re out,” noted Pumaren, whose team managed to book the eighth and last spot in the quarterfinals by outlasting Petron in overtime, 95-91, last week at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Express beat the Aces, 75-68 on March 15 at the Ynares Center as import Michael Dunigan was a monster on the defensive end after finishing with five blocks, while leading the team with 25 points and 14 rebounds.
Pumaren said he’s grateful the Express were able to gain some playoff experience during the Philippine Cup, where they managed to stay close before losing to eventual champion Talk ‘N Text in the quarterfinals.
“Our players have been in this kind of situation before. Actually, we were almost there (forcing a rubber match) against Talk ‘N Text,” he added.
While it’s a given that import Robert Dozier, JV Casio, Cyrus Baguio, Sonny Thoss, and super rookie Calvin Abueva will get their usual numbers, Pumaren pointed out that it’s guys like Dondon Hontiveros and other off-the-bench players like RJ Jazul and rookie Raphy Reyes who the Express need to watch out for.
“Definitely, they (Aces) are well-stacked in players. Their bench is capable of exploding, just like Dondon Hontiveros who exploded recently (against Rain or Shine),” Pumaren recalled.
Air21 will have to beat No. 1 seed Alaska on Saturday to forge a winner-take-all match on Monday.
But until the Express could pull off a miracle win against the top-seeded Aces on Friday, Pumaren isn’t even thinking about the Monday rubber match.