Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler
MANILA, Philippines – The Alaska Aces are down 0-3 in the Governors’ Cup Finals to the San Miguel Beermen. Clearly, they must be doing something wrong, right?
Maybe you could point out being out-rebounded by 22 in a must-win Game 3 as the culprit, as well as a disastrous 6-of-17 free throw shooting performance as a team that even DeAndre Jordan would find paltry.
Maybe they’ve just missed more open shots than San Miguel. Maybe the breaks of the game have just favored the Beermen since the finals opened last Friday.
Maybe they’ve been close, and just need to find that extra source of energy late in the fourth quarter to have a chance at still making this finals series somehow competitive.
Maybe they’ll find a way to defy a deficit that PBA Finals history has shown to be insurmountable.
Well, maybe not.
Maybe it’s this simple: It’s not about what the Alaska Aces are not doing. Because, to be honest, they’ve been quite fine and playing reminiscent of the team that topped the elimination round standings.
The San Miguel Beermen are just better.
Three games in, that has clearly been the case. What was supposed to be an epic conclusion to a tremendous PBA season has turned into a one-sided display of dominance from a team that has exhibited its superiority over the league this conference.
Alaska was supposed to be on the same level as the Beermen. The two were equals, many believed entering Game 1 on Friday. Both entered the postseason with identical 8-3 records. But then, San Miguel bludgeoned the Aces from start to finish with so much ease on Friday. First blood, advantage San Miguel.
But Alaska was supposed to bounce back strong, right? They are the Aces - how could they not?
Instead, after some sniper-like shooting from Marcio Lassiter, individual brilliance from Arizona Reid, and the 6-foot-11 June Mar Fajardo being, well, 6-foot-11, Alaska fans left The Big Dome on Sunday night, July 12, with a bitter taste on their tongues: 0-2.
And then there was Wednesday, July 15. Game 3. Alaska had every ingredient they needed to pull out a win and make the finals interesting. Sure, San Miguel shot 52% from the field, but was forced to 20 turnovers that led to 17 Aces points. Alaska’s bench scored 42. The Beermen's? 12.
Alaska was up 4 early in the fourth period. The Aces crowd was rocking. Their fans were taking every chance to jeer and sneer at Ronald Tubid. Gatas Republika was alive.
And then Reid came back in with 8 minutes and 21 seconds left in the fourth period. The first thing he did? Hit a contested 3-pointer right on the nose of his defender. After that? A free throw and then a floater he converted in the lane despite getting fouled. A few possessions later, another tough floater over Romeo Travis.
After that? Another 3-pointer. Suddenly, an 85-81 lead for the Aces turned to a 91-85 lead for the Beermen. Signed, sealed, Reid, delivered. It was surgical; a masterpiece of a fourth quarter performance from a hungry import searching for his first championship in his fourth season in the league.
As Reid told Rappler a few months back, “I want this (championship) bad.” On Wednesday, he played more than like he wanted it. He needed it.
“They were just making plays,” Aces head coach Alex Compton said after the game. “AZ was making some challenging 3s off the dribble. He made a bunch of buckets down the stretch that were big.”
Import quality beer
Maybe the decision to give Travis (17 points, 7 rebounds in Game 3) the Best Import award over Reid (41 points, 12 rebounds) has lit another fire inside him. Regardless, Reid has proven that while the trophy might be hanging on Travis’ mantle, everyone has become aware of who the best import of this series has been. And really, it’s not even close.
And right there is one of the reasons why Alaska won’t beat San Miguel. Maybe not in Game 4, and certainly not for the championship. The talent level between Travis and Reid is fairly equal, but compare the ability of both to perform in the clutch, and the discussion isn’t close.
Travis certainly has a desire for victory, but arguably no one else in the PBA right now looks like he’s starving for a title more than Reid.
“We start playing hero ball at the end,” Travis said after Game 3. “We don’t play Alaska ball. We don’t share the ball like what gets us to the fourth quarter. When we get to the fourth quarter, we start playing hero ball, so I think we’ll be better. We have to be better.”
It’s tough to think they won’t get better. Travis has to find a way to play better. Other guys besides Calvin Abueva, Sonny Thoss, and Chris Banchero - has anyone seen Cyrus Baguio? - will likely finally step up and provide the necessary local support Alaska will need to steal even just a game.
Compton is too good of a coach not to help his team do so. Shots will start falling. They will most likely shoot better from the free throw line. Fajardo’s presence will still be gigantic, but Alaska will find a way to not get out-rebounded by the ages of adults born two decades ago.
“We’ve really been missing some good looks from the 3. I’m not really sure what to do about that as long we’re taking the right ones. You hope they go down,” Compton said.
“I thought in the fourth, there, there were multiple possessions where they got, like, 4 rebounds or something. And we were playing defense and I was proud of our guys’ effort, but then they were getting the long bounce. They were a little quicker to the ball.”
“Next game, hindi naman madali yung kukunin nila agad-agad yung trophy kung [lalaban kami] sa Game 4, diba?” said Calvin Abueva.
(Next game, it won’t be easy that they’ll just get the trophy if we’ll fight, right?)
The coach and his player are right, but when both teams play at their best, it’s clear who will come away victorious.
The Beermen have the best import in the league right now. They also have the best local in the league who could one day turn out as the most unstoppable force ever to grace Philippine basketball.
They have a point guard in Alex Cabagnot who can find open guys at the blink of an eye with his passes, attack the lane and score in creative acrobatic ways, and hit 3-pointers when left open. They have a guy in Marcio Lassiter who, when left open from downtown, you might as well add 3 points on the scoreboard.
Now imagine those 4 running a play together. How do you contain a Cabagnot-Fajardo pick-and-roll without leaving Reid or Lassiter wide open. Add another shooter as the fifth guy, and the Aces are doomed - which is exactly what they are for this series.
When San Miguel is at their best, the opponents get demoralized. There’s a lot of fight Alaska, but even their eyes looked defeated at the end of Game 3. That’s what a team as talented, deep, and determined as the Beermen can do to you.
Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler
Oh, and San Miguel also has guys like Chris Lutz, Chris Ross, Tubid, David Semerad (for physical purposes), Gabby Espinas, and more ready to come in and contribute at any time, whether to score an important basket or two, make an extra pass, or, well, level the playing field whenever Abueva starts playing his mind games.
Another critical part? Their unsung hero in this series, Arwind Santos, was a league MVP just two years ago. A guy who would put up nightly double-doubles - and just two conferences ago was a Finals MVP - has accepted a role as a floor spreader and defensive specialist, becoming the fifth most important guy on the roster.
It speaks to the sacrifice Leo Austria has asked these Beermen to make for the improvement of the team. It speaks even more to Santos’ dedication to victory that he’s willing to do the dirty work rather than playing the part of poster boy.
“Maybe the turning point dito yung chasedown [block] ni Arwind. It’s very crucial nung sinupalpal niya si Casio, and nakita ko talaga yung character niya, and he really wants to win,” his head coach said after the game.
(Maybe the turning point of Game 3 was Arwind’s chasedown block. It was very crucial when be blocked Casio, and I saw his character there. He really want to win.)
Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler
And he had this to say about his team: “Makikita mo sa mga mata nila na gusto nila manalo.”
(You can see in their eyes that they really want to win.)
You add that desire with supreme talent plus great coaching, and you have the winner.
“We will honor the game. We’ll be out there playing. We won’t be out there walking through; we’ll be out there playing,” Compton said looking forward.
“Somebody had to be the first man to walk on the moon. Somebody had to be the first at everything. I like swinging for the fences if you like the analogy.
“And it should be, that if San Miguel is to win this series, they had to earn it. We will not roll over. That’s not what we do. That’s now what we do in practice. Thats not what we do when no one’s watching. So we’ll get out there and we’ll play.”
Said Travis: “It’s still a best-of-7, so we gotta get a win. We were in the last two games, right there every game, but we need to finish in the fourth better. It just takes one. One win at a time. So we just need to worry about Friday, and hopefully come out, play hard, and play together like we’ve been playing, and put a full game together.”
Rest assured, the Aces are not going to go down without giving the Beermen the fight of their lives. It will be commendable, and more importantly, adored by their loyal fans. After all, they’ve become the new Never Say Die team for a reason.
But it boils down to this: the other team is just better, and that’s why this Finals is over.