San Miguel is not going down without a fight
MANILA, Philippines – Over and over in the second half, many were waiting for the inevitable Alaska Aces run.
You know, the one they usually make when they decide “we’re not going to let the other guys score on defense while we rain down hell, fire, and brimstone on offense.”
It’s the run Alex Compton sometimes refers to as luck, but happens way too often to be characterized as such. It’s the run they used in Game 1 to rid of San Miguel and avoid a humiliating defeat as June Mar Fajardo watched from far away, likely with an ice pack on his left knee and crutches on the side to help his giant 6-foot-11 frame to walk.
But that run never materialized in Game 2, and there was certainly no luck involved there.
San Miguel kept fighting back. Hungry, relentless, and persevering like the champions they are, the Beermen didn’t allow the Aces to put a stamp on Game 2 emphatically. Instead, they made the Milkmen sweat until the very end, with an opportunity to steal the game on the line.
Here’s a not-so-secret: if you told San Miguel head coach Leo Austria whether or not they would tie the Philippine Cup finals at 1-1 on Tuesday, January 19, would come down to a wide open Ronald Tubid 3-pointer from the corner (his spot), he’d take that 10 times out of 10.
And you know what? 9 times out of 10, Tubid makes that shot. Unfortunately for him and San Miguel, the lonesome instance he missed took place when his team needed him to make it most.
“I told the players, whatever happens, win or lose, what we want to see is keep on fighting back. We know our handicap, but the way they played tonight, I’m very happy for them,” Austria could only say after his team lost Game 2, 83-80, but not before giving Alaska the fight of its life.
“I don’t think dehado sila (they’re done),” Compton said of the Beermen, who many expect to lose with Fajardo recuperating. “That’s a team of winners, a team of great players.”
The Aces were supposed to cruise to the championship, many believed. Fajardo is the league’s undisputed MVP, the future of Philippine basketball, and peerless when it comes to the debate of who the best pure Filipino basketball player in the world is today.
Take a look back at how many 38-point, 18-rebound games he had against Rain or Shine in the semis. Watch how he torched Alaska for 43 points in the elimination round. Read up on the countless times he filled the stat sheet against each PBA team.
But alas, one box out from Jireh Ibanes has forced Fajardo out of the first two games of the finals, and whether or not he even plays the rest of the way looks bleak.
Here’s the good news if you’re a Beermen fan: San Miguel may go down, but it won’t do so without playing like champions. You want our championship, Alaska? You’re going to come and have take it, is exactly how Austria’s guys have played it in the first two games of this suddenly competitive finals.
Marcio Lassiter has been stellar. Alex Cabagnot (23 points in Game 2) is re-establishing himself as a premier player in the PBA. Even Yancy De Ocampo, of all people, is playing superb after finishing with 13 points and 14 boards on Tuesday.
Grinding. Gritty. Pride. The heart of a champion. That’s what the San Miguel Beermen have shown so far.
“It speaks a lot about the team, about their coaching staff,” said Dondon Hontiveros to Rappler after he scored 12 points in Game 2. “They find a way to get the most out of the players they have. Marcio, Alex. I know Alex would step up and he showed it.
Truth be told, Alaska has yet to figure out how to guard these Beermen without Fajardo. Scoring can come from anyone. The ball swings more. San Miguel has played faster than it has all conference long. From imposing and towering, these defending champions have become cerebral and sharp.
“And even with Yancy around, they executed, and even Yancy is another guy who can shoot from outside. We don’t know how to defend them, and like I said, we dodged a bullet,” said Hontiveros.
But most of all, San Miguel is now a team playing with nothing to lose. They know how the storylines will go.
Win the title, and they’ll be forever praised for being the club that rose above the challenge of losing their best player and took down the mighty Aces at their peak. Lose, and the first thought that will come to mind is how different the series would have been had Fajardo been healthy.
Lose, but continue to play the way they’ve played after two games, and they’ll still be adored by their legion of fans. The pressure is on Alaska, not the defending champions. If the Aces can’t beat their rival Beermen a third straight finals, and this time without the most dominant force in Philippine basketball, then can they ever beat San Miguel?
“In a way, yes,” Dontiveros answered when asked if his team now has the momentum, “and that’s also how they were when [they were up] 2-0 last conference (Governors’ Cup Finals). We just wanted to get better and we got better in a way, but we can’t be like that - relying on luck. We need to work defensively.”
“One game at a time,” said Tubid, who would have been today’s hero had his game-winning attempt from the corner gone in. “We know we can win against Alaska even without June Mar. We just need to focus on details and get some rest.”
“This team can recover if their frame of mind will be set on, ‘We’re capable of beating any team, even though we don’t have Fajardo,’” added Austria.
The mentality San Miguel needs to have is simple: they need to keep believing that they can beat Alaska without Fajardo rather than playing like a team just trying to stay afloat until their big man returns.
Because he’s not returning. He shouldn’t.
“I think the swelling on his knee is on and off, that’s why we don’t want him to get here, because it might not help his recovery. The kid is very frustrated. He wants to play. But I told him, ‘June Mar, we could sacrifice the championship, as long as your injury won’t prolong,’” Austria said.
A source told Rappler if Fajardo’s swelling dramatically improves, he may even play in Game 4. The ACL and MCL are intact. Game 3 this Friday in Lucena is out of the question, but if it gets better after that, then he can see action - with the aid of a special knee brace.
But should the Beermen even consider it? Should they consider the risk of further damaging the most important body part of their 26-year-old superstar who will become, health-permitting, the greatest player ever in PBA history?
If Alaska wins on Friday, it goes up 3-0, and the series is over. There’s a reason no team has ever returned from down 0-3 in the finals: it’s too hard. San Miguel won’t do it, Fajardo or not, because the Aces are still pretty damn good.
“I’m sure there’s so many championships ahead of him, and that’s very important. I think everybody from the management understands his situation,” Austria said of Fajardo.
“I’m sure he will try, but I don’t want to take any risk, because the future of Philippine basketball is with June Mar, especially in the international competition, and the future of San Miguel is a big factor with June Mar healthy.”
Alaska will end up winning this series, but won’t cruise to the title. San Miguel will claw and fight the rest of the way, going doing like the champions they are.
And even when they eventually see the confetti raining down the arena for the other team, San Miguel will still feel like winners. – Rappler.com
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