MANILA, Philippines – It’s a cycle. You win some, you lose some. You’re down, and then you’re up. You take in glory, then it’s back to the grind.
Though it’s never easy to get back into the ring right away.
The San Miguel Beermen are clearly still basking in the afterglow of its first all-Filipino title in 14 years. And it has come at a cost of a 0-3 slate and two of those losses dealt by young expansion teams.
Head coach Leo Austria, who is normally gracious in granting media interviews no matter the circumstance, fell silent after the proud champion team he built went down in record books as Blackwater’s first victim in the PBA.
He declined reporters’ requests for interviews and he reportedly walked out of the dugout without so much to say. His actions, for one rare time, spoke louder than his words ever could.
But before San Miguel hit rock bottom, Austria managed to pinpoint what is ailing his squad.
He rued lack of time as the primary culprit for his team’s slump, and the championship hangover they can’t seem to cure just yet.
“Because of the championship, that was a huge game for us. We celebrated but I told the players that I’m really concerned because our gap [for the next conference] is so small,” he told a small group of sportswriters after dropping their opening game to KIA.
“I keep telling them that the championship is over, the celebration is over. But hindi mo maaalis eh. Makikita mo naman.” (But you can’t expect them not to feel it. We all see it.)
Last conference’s Finals Most Valuable Player Arwind Santos echoed Austria’s sentiments with much conviction as the team captain who sees through his teammates.
“Totoo naman talaga. Kahit ako nararamdaman ko pa yung tamis nung championship,” Santos told Rappler, adding that exhaustion also plays a factor.
“Hindi na nga kami tumitingin sa preparation eh, part na yun eh. Pero kung iisa-isahin mo, talagang may kaunting fatigue pa, yung hangover ng championship, talagang nandoon pa.”
(It's true. Even I still feel the sweet taste of the championship. We don't even blame the lack of preparation anymore, it's part of it. But if you go through it one by one, there is definitely some fatigue, the championship hangover is really still there.)
Guard Alex Cabagnot has a different point of view when it comes to their supposed hangover.
“No. I don’t think so. We just lost this game,” he said referring to the team’s surprise loss to Blackwater. “We don’t wanna blame anything or make excuses. We gotta look into ourselves first.”
What’s certain, however, is the San Miguel team competing now in the 2015 PBA Commissioner’s Cup is a far cry from the offensively driven, explosive, and defensively sound crew from 3 weeks ago.
In all of the Beermen’s 3 losses, they’ve been shooting just 34.6%.
Usual go-to guy and reigning league MVP June Mar Fajardo is averaging just 10.6 points and 10 rebounds a game. The last two outings he had only 9 and 5 points.
Fajardo only had one single-digit performance in the previous Philippine Cup, a conference-low 9 points in Finals game 6.
Photo by Nuki Sabio/PBA Images
Import Ronald Roberts is “doing his part,” according to Cabagnot, with his averages of 22.7 points, 17.7 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 41 minutes a game.
His numbers are good, but there is still a problem.
Austria explained Roberts may be disrupting the fluidity of the Beermen, saying that lack of significant practice time to acclimate himself into the system left Roberts lost in the flow of things, which throws off the entire team during the game.
“Yung fluidity ng offense namin mahirap because in my system kailangan you keep on moving. And pag hindi alam ng isang player yung ginagawa, nasisira yung fluidity,” he explained. “Yung sharpness namin talagang wala.”
(It’s difficult for the fluidity of our offense because in my system you need to keep on moving. And if one player does not know what is happening, it disturbs the fluidity. We lose our sharpness.)
Ideally, Austria said, an import would have to practice with them full-time for two weeks to get the hang of his system and plays, but Roberts arrived only on January 31, 4 days before San Miguel’s first game.
“Marami pang kulang sa tingin ko. Preparation tapos yung maibalik namin yung offense at defense namin nung all-Filipino,” Santos said as he explained further the dymanic within the team as far as the atmosphere and winning a title is concerned.
(There is still so many that we lack. Preparation and we must bring back our offense and defense from the all-Filipino conference.)
“Karamihan sa amin first time nagkaroon ng championship so talagang iba, enjoy eh. Talagang nandoon pa rin eh. Kahit ako nakikita ko kami sa dugout, kita ko yung masakit [yung pagkatalo] pero natatabunan pa rin kasi honestly, bilang tao, nararamdaman pa rin namin yung saya ng championship,” he said.
“Kasi hindi naman kami halos nakapag-celebrate. Kahit sa family wala. Yung team hindi nakapag-celebrate, hindi man lang nakapunta sa tahimik na lugar para makapag-relax. Pero ito yung nilalaro namin eh, PBA. Talagang ganoon eh, dikit dikit ang schedule.”
(Most of us won a championship for the first time so it’s different for them, they really enjoyed it. It’s still there. When I look at them inside the dugout, I see that the losses are painful for them but it’s overpowered because honestly, as humans, we still feel the championship.
We weren’t able to really celebrate, even with our families. The team was not able to celebrate, or even go to a quiet place to relax. But we know this is the PBA. The reality is the schedules are tight.)
The finalists’ plight
Anyone would admit they would love to take their time being on top. But if you’re playing in a league like the PBA, where conferences have an interval time of just a little over a week at most due to compressed schedules, reveling is not a luxury.
The 2015 Philippine Cup ended on January 21 while the mid-season, import-spliced Commissioner’s Cup tipped off exactly a week later on January 27.
Having little to no preparation time for finalists is a fact of life in the PBA. Teams just have to live with it, like what Grand Slam champions San Mig Super Coffee Mixers (now Purefoods) did last season.
Like the Beermen, coach Tim Cone and the Mixers had barely a week of preparation and immediately fell into exactly the same 0-3 slump to start the 2014 Philippine Cup right after they won the 2013 Governors’ Cup, which ended much later in October due to the FIBA Asia Championship held in Manila.
They then hobbled through the 2014 Commissioner’s Cup eliminations, finishing at 4-5 and good for just 6th place as they took the long rout to the championship. The Governors’ Cup saw another poor start at 1-3 as San Mig Coffee managed a 5-4 finish to the eliminations at 4th place before going on to win their 4th straight title and the Grand Slam.
In the current conference, after an early exit in the Philippine Cup, Cone and his wards are enjoying a rare strong start highlighted by a 4-game winning streak.
However, the trend is there, and the challenge is always the same. And it’s not just the champion teams.
Alaska, San Miguel’s foe last conference, is also wobbly as well with a 1-2 record, playing without two of its starters in JVee Casio and Sonny Thoss, who are both nursing injuries.
Can the PBA do something about the finalists’ recurring struggles?
PBA Media Bureau Chief Willie Marcial explained the league’s longtime system of delaying the two finalists by two weeks at the onset of every new conference. That means rotating the schedule around the other teams before letting the finalists play.
“Basta nag-Finals ka, hindi ka maglalaro ng two weeks,” Marcial said, adding that the PBA cannot further delay the finalists because it also won’t be fair for them to be lagging too far behind in the standings. (If you played in the finals, you won’t play for two weeks.)
True enough, both Alaska and San Miguel played exactly two weeks after the Finals.
But those two weeks weren’t enough for the Beermen as they were complete at practice only 3 days before their first game.
Austria explained it was because of various injuries and ailments among his players, including Fajardo getting sick, Santos dealing with leg problems, Ronald Tubid with back spasms, and even Ronald Pascual having a stiff neck.
“Plus they’re still thinking of the championship,” Austria added.
Knowing there’s nothing he can do to change their situation, Santos is pinning his hopes on the example San Mig Coffee set, hoping the San Miguel can replicate the feat.
“Tinitignan lang namin yung San Mig. Kasi diba sila, na-0-3 pero nakabangon. Kung kaya ng iba kailangan magawa rin namin. Hindi naman imposible.”
(We just look at San Mig. They started 0-3 also but they bounced back. If others can do it, so can we. It’s not impossible.)
Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler
The only thing San Miguel can do now is confront their situation and, as Santos put it, change their mindset. They must find a way to regain the desire to win again.
Santos sees the path to that is setting small, realistic goals that will not overwhelm or pressure the team too much.
“Kung pasisimplehin ko lang, gusto lang namin limang panalo lang muna,” he said. “Para hindi masyado ganoon kabigat at ganon ka-pressure ang tra-trabahuhin namin. Kasi alam ko bawat isa sa amin pagod talaga.”
(To simplify things, we just want 5 wins first. So it doesn’t feel too heavy a load and there is less pressure. I know every one of us is tired.)
After getting 5 wins, the next modest goal, Santos said, is to reach the quarterfinals. And from there they will climb their way up.
“Lahat ng dumadaan sa championship, may hangover. Sana kung hangover nga hindi naman forever,” Santos said. (Everyone who goes through a championship experiences the hangover. I just hope ours won’t last forever.)
Cabagnot, on the other hand, assured there’s no need to press the panic button just yet. The team, he said, just needs to play with a real sense of urgency and with the same fire and vigor a champion team should have.
Their next chance to prove themselves will be in a rematch with fellow finalists Alaska on Tuesday, February 17.
“We’re 0-3. We have to win the next game,” said Cabagnot. “We don’t want to be the laughing stock of the PBA.” – Rappler.com