THE PBA’s two hottest players take center stage in the Commissioner’s Cup Finals between Talk ‘N Text and Rain or Shine which starts on Wednesday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Paul Lee and Jayson Castro, frontrunners for the Best Player of the Conference award, battle not only for the tournament’s top individual plum, but more importantly seek to lead their respective teams to the championship.
Both spitfire guards have carried their respective teams on their backs, with Lee making the most of his relatively limited time on the court to become the Elasto Painters’ most consistent performer, and Castro going on a tear from long distance - to add to his strong drives - in bailing out the Tropang Texters in the crucial moments of the playoffs.
They may not be assigned to each other defensively, but the Gilas Pilipinas teammates are looking forward to their individual matchup.
“Ever since naman kapag nagkakalaro kami ni Paul, minsan nagkakabantayan kami,” Castro said. “He’s a competitive person at ‘yung eagerness niya to win, nandun lagi.”
“So na-cha-challenge rin ako na makalaro siya kasi gusto namin manalo yung team namin,” the 28-year-old Guagua, Pampanga pride added, while playing down the heated race between him and Lee for the BPC award.
“Hindi naman ako nakikipag-ano kay Paul, kasi alam niyo naman ako, team player ako,” Castro continued. “Once nag-champion ka, lahat masaya eh.”
“Second na lang siguro yung Best Player of the Conference. Kung ibibgay, sa akin, thank you; kung hindi naman, okay lang, basta mag-champion kami.”
Lee echoed Castro’s sentiment.
“Bago mag-start yung season, may goal kami which is makapasok ng championship every conference. So para sa akin, blessing na lang 'yung maging candidate sa BPC,” the 26-year-old Tondo native said. “So kung para sa akin, para sa akin. Pero championship muna para sa lahat.”
Castro has the inside track on the individual award as he averaged 19.1 points on an impressive 50 percent (51-of-102) shooting from three-point range, 5.3 assists, 4.7 boards, and 1.2 steals in 33.3 minutes in 16 games this conference.
He boosted his credentials with a scintillating showing against Purefoods in the semifinals where he was almost unstoppable from inside and out especially in Games Three and Four of the series.
“They put a lot of defenders on him,” Elasto Painters coach Yeng Guiao said of player they called ‘The Blur.’ “Lahat ng guwardiya ng Purefoods ginamit na sa kanya.”
“Yung security guard na lang ng Araneta ang hindi ginamit sa kanya,” the outspoken mentor was quick to add, drawing laughter from the audience, before turning serious.
“Hindi namin alam paano dedepensahan 'yan. He’s going to be a big problem for us.”
But Guiao has his own “Lee-thal Weapon” in Lee, who normed 16.8 points on 41.2 percent from three-point distance, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists in just 26.8 minutes in 14 games in the midseason tournament.
His top gunner may be behind Castro in the BPC race, but Guiao said he is not about to increase Lee’s playing time for him to get more production for the sake of winning an award.
“We’ll just play our normal game,” Guiao said. “Paul will usually play twenty-five to twenty-seven minutes for us. So I don’t see moving out of that routine. There are some games I need to play him an extra three to four minutes, close games or hard games. But otherwise, if I think of some other things that are just going to distract my concentration, I’d rather not.”
“The more important thing for us is to win the game, because that’s going to play into him winning the BPC.”
Tropang Texters coach Jong Uichico agreed, feeling if both guards lead their team to the title, it would translate to winning the top individual plum.
“They would not have been the top candidates if both teams didn’t reach the championship. But we preach team first,” Uichico said.