THE two most successful franchises in the PBA aim to add to their respective trophy cases as the Governors’ Cup Finals unfurl with Game One later in the day at the Mall of Asia Arena.
San Miguel Beer, which owns the most titles in the league with 20, and Alaska, which is running second with 14, square off starting at 7 p.m., seeking to gain a morale-boosting victory to jumpstart the best-of-seven series.
It is a rematch of the Philippine Cup title series, which the Beermen barely won after the Aces took them to the limit and needed an Arwind Santos dagger three-pointer to seal the triumph last January.
The grueling series took its toll as both teams suffered early exits in the Commissioner’s Cup, with the Aces making the quarterfinals as the sixth seed before Purefoods swept them in their best-of-three series, and the Beermen missing the playoffs entirely after finishing ninth among 12 teams.
But both teams have been rejuvenated ever since and it showed in the season-ending conference, where the Aces and Beermen finished 1-2 in the eliminations with identical 8-3 win-loss cards.
Alaska has never lost since then, dispatching Ginebra in the quarterfinals, before turning the tables on Star with a three-game sweep in the semifinals, while the Beermen had to use their twice-to-beat advantage against Meralco to advance to the Final Four where they hurdled Rain or Shine after four games.
“I think we both wore each other out after the first finals,” Aces coach Alex Compton said. “Kung pwede lang nag-bakasyon na lang kami sa pangalawang conference eh. That's almost what happened. We tried but we just didn't have gas in our tanks.”
“Now we're back, they reloaded and we reloaded.”
Alaska survived SMB, 82-77, in their elimination round meeting in Panabo where the Aces squandered a 21-point lead before Romeo Travis spared the team blushes by hitting the biggest baskets down the stretch.
The Aces import tallied 32 points and 10 boards as his team snapped the Beermen’s eight-game winning streak and put a lock on the top seeding in the playoffs.
“I don’t really put too much on eliminations matchups,” Compton said. “Playoffs are different. Everything is amped up more.”
But if it’s any indication, then the upcoming series is going to be as tightly fought.
Here are some of the factors that will decide who gets the last silverware of the league’s 40th season.
Offense vs defense
The Beermen are fourth in the league in scoring at 102. 3 a game as they are one of only four teams to average in triple digits. On top of that, they are also first in field goal percentage (46.3%) — being first in three-point shooting (37.8%) and second in two-point shooting (50.8%).
That’s because of a powerhouse roster led by June Mar Fajardo, Marcio Lassiter, Alex Cabagnot, and Santos, at the disposal of Beermen coach Leo Austria.
“Kung ikaw yung head coach ng San Miguel, mababaliw ka na sa klase ng lineup na meron ka,” Elasto Painters big man Beau Belga said.
The Aces, on the other hand, have only one player averaging in double-digit scoring in Chris Banchero at 10.1 points as they have relied more on their trademark full-court defense to get past their opponents.
As a result, Alaska has emerged No. 1 in the league in steals (8) and in turnovers forced (17.8), while ranking second in turnover points (16.5), second in field goal percent allowed (42%), and third in points allowed (89.7), being one of only three teams to allow less than 90 points.
“It's gonna be everybody from Alaska, all of us to bring our best of we want to win a championship against a team like San Miguel,” said Compton, who has instilled a “We Not Me” philosophy in the Uytengsu franchise.
AZ Reid (28.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.2 steals in 41.4 minutes) has been the more prolific scorer between the two, as seen in the semifinals where he scored from everywhere against Rain or Shine — post-up, midrange, and beyond the arc, and scored when his team needed him to, while also knowing when to pass the leather.
Romeo Travis, for his part, has also been a reliable scorer as he normed 24 points along with 12.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.2 blocks in 34.7 minutes so far this conference.
But Alaska has been counting on the lefty forward more for the dirty work — offensive rebounds and hustle — that has been a major reason for the Aces' success this conference.
Both reinforcements, though, are expected to cancel each other out.
Alex Cabagnot had been deferring to his teammates all-conference long and only had eight points on 3-of-9 shooting, six boards, and two assists against three turnovers in 29 minutes in their regular-season meeting.
But the lefty veteran playmaker has become more aggressive while continuing to distribute with aplomb on offense in the semis, where he averaged a near-double-double of 14 points on 50-percent (20-of-40) shooting and 9.3 assists, on top of 4.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals.
Calvin Abeuva, on the other hand, is Alaska’s prime source of contagious energy, diving for loose balls, getting offensive rebounds out of nowhere, and just providing numbers that don’t appear on the stats sheet.
What does show on the stats is his impressive rebounding numbers. Standing just 6’1” ½, the former Rookie of the Year ranked seventh among locals in rebounds with 6.6 despite averaging just 16.6 minutes per game.
“Who does that?” Compton marveled.
To put it into perspective, the 6-foot-10 Fajardo averaged a league-leading 12.8 rebounds, although he is averaging 33 minutes per game.
Abueva has also normed 8.3 points, two assists, and 0.7 steal in his limited time. RJ Jazul, Dondon hontiveros, Rome dela Rosa, and Sonny Thoss play more minutes, yet he averages more points than them.
While the imports are expected to carry their teams, it’s the performance of these 'X-factors' that will determine how far their respective squads will go.
Leo Austria has turned things around after SMB started the conference with two straight losses, a development that prompted trade threats to underperforming players.
But the Philippine Cup champion coach is once again under pressure to deliver a title for San Miguel’s flagship franchise after sister squads Star and Ginebra bombed out.
He has the tools and the acumen to get it done.
“Coach Leo has been phenomenal, deserves a lot of credit for the way that they maximize it,” Compton said.
The American tactician, on the other hand, has yet to win a title, but is coaching like a champion, constantly managing to make adjustments that allow the Aces’ comeback kids to prove that no lead is safe against them.
Having Louie Alas, Jeff Cariaso, and Topex Robinson in his coaching staff surely helps.
In the end, it all boils down to who wants it more.
The Aces definitely have the hunger as they are gunning for their first crown since the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup, while Compton is targeting his first coaching title.
The Beermen are also out to maintain a rich tradition as the league’s most-titled team
“Kung sino mas malaking puso at will to win, yun ang mag-pe-prevail,” Austria said.
“We'll do what we do, play as hard as we can, leave it all out there.”