MANILA, Philippines – When the stakes are high, when he is needed most, Chris Ross is right up front at center stage, willing to take it all on.
The 31-year-old guard showcased a different, albeit far improved, version of himself in these 2017 PBA Philippine Cup Finals, leading the San Miguel Beermen to their third consecutive all-Filipino crown.
Fueled by the immensity of the playoffs and the finals, buoyed by the energy and atmosphere it created, Ross challenged the conventional perceptions of him as a player and turned them inside out.
In the process, he deservedly snagged his second Finals MVP honor, exactly a year since winning his first – after San Miguel made a historic comeback from 0-3 down to win the Philippine Cup title against Alaska.
"I was just being aggressive, man. I just love the playoffs. I love the finals," he told reporters Sunday, March 5, standing on the beer-soaked floors of the Smart Araneta Coliseum after they celebrated the Game 5 victory over Barangay Ginebra.
"I love the lights, man. And I like playing in front of crowds like that. It means something. Not saying that the eliminations don't mean anything, but you make your name in the playoffs and in the finals."
He's right. Legacies are made in the big moments. And Ross is doing good so far.
The 6-foot-1 Filipino-American had averages of 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 9.2 assists, and 1.8 steals in the finals.
He has had an impressive series, stepping up as an offensive threat after long being regarded as more of a defensive ace and constantly being left unguarded when shooting from the outside.
He has commanded the respect of opponents' defense through the playoffs. In the semifinals against TNT, Ross even set a new career-high of 31 points.
He now produces offense on top of facilitating for the rest of his more potent teammates in reigning 3-time MVP June Mar Fajardo, 2013 MVP Arwind Santos, and gunners Alex Cabagnot and Marcio Lassiter.
In that respect, Ross wishes he could share his trophy with the rest of his SMB brothers.
"I was hoping they'd give out 5 MVPs. Our starters did so much, we played so many minutes, and I was just hoping we all 5 could get a trophy," Ross said.
"Totally a team effort, man. It all starts from June Mar. We all benefit from his greatness. All the attention he gets? It all just trickles down, man. Arwind spaces the floor for us. Marcio spaces the floor for us. Alex makes plays."
In Game 5, Ross poured 12 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists, and 6 steals as he nearly reached a rare quadruple-double. He only had 4 turnovers and was 5-of-11 from the field.
He fittingly delivered the dagger two-pointer inside the final minute, an insane reverse, no-look putback that put the game and the series out of Ginebra's reach for good.
"Oh man, I didn't even see it going! I just grabbed and threw it up. Then I heard the crowd go crazy," Ross commented on his wild shot. "You could call it luck or even destiny that it went in. I'll take a look at the film and see what happened."
His defense was also on-point through the series, limiting guard LA Tenorio. Still, he says he isn't happy about letting Tenorio escape a few times in the fourth quarter.
"I actually didn't play too well defense in the fourth. I left my man a few times. LA hit a couple of threes. I was mad at myself," he said. "But my teammates had my back. We made enough stops at the end and we got the rebound and we were able to finish those guys off."
Look at Ross tap away the ball and steal it for SMB #PBAFinals #PBA2017 pic.twitter.com/XYBgII5DrQ — Rappler Sports (@RapplerSports) March 5, 2017
Trust from his coach
Ross credits coach Leo Austria for trusting him to "run the show" for the Beermen and giving him freedom to be himself on the court.
"He's kind of let us do what we need to do out there. 'You guys control the game. You guys do what you need to do, as long as you're in control.' That's a sign of a good coach, he doesn't try to control everything we do," Ross explained, noting Austria rarely gets mad at him.
"That's the best thing you can have as a point guard. A coach telling you, 'Chris, run the show. You do your thing and run the show.' That's one thing I love. I like going out there and feeling the game and it I think it comes from him being a point guard as well."
Austria, for his part, sees exactly why he can trust and put his confidence on a player like Ross.
"Since we won a championship last year and he told me, 'Coach, I want to play, I want to win.' I know him, he's a fighter. He has a lot of things to prove. He wants to win," Austria said of his guard.
"He's like a journeyman. I think natagpuan niya na ang kanyang bahay at ang kanyang tatay (he already found his home and his father). I think I have to give credit to Chris Ross. He keeps on telling me, 'Coach, we will win.' Once I hear that from him I am confident."
Ross' performance has essentially come as a surprise due to his sustained offensive play. But not for his teammates.
"He played well, extremely well. Stuff like that, I know it seems like biglaan (it's sudden) but I see it everyday," Cabagnot said of Ross. "I know his improvement, I know his work ethic and it just came out."
It's also least surprising to Ross, who seems to like to choose his moments, instead of going at it every single time.
"There's times in the eliminations, I have an open layup and I'd pass it behind. I don't care about scoring. I want my teammates to be happy. That's the main thing," he explained.
"That's what I thrive off of, like, when my teammates are happy, I'm happy. When other people are happy, I'm happy. That's just how I was raised – my dad raised me, my mom raised me that way. I'm just a giving person. That's the way I play."
It's not crazy to think Ross will come and meet another big moment, on another big stage, some time soon – with this Beermen squad still very much contenders the rest of the season. He's bound to do so. And until then, we wait for the next one. – Rappler.com