PBA semis preview: Overachieving Air21 try to derail San Mig Coffee

MANILA, Philippines - The resilience shown by the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers and Air21 Express when their backs are against the wall makes both of them tailor-made for do-or-die matches.

"They're comfortable playing in this type of games," said head coach Tim Cone after dethroning the defending PBA Commissioner's Cup champions Alaska Aces in three games.

This is why the Mixers have won five straight do-or-die matches dating back to the 2013 Governor's Cup and have made it to the semifinals seven out of a possible eight times under the Tim Cone era.

The mutual trust among players, Cone said, has helped them overcome adversity each time and win back-to-back PBA conference titles.

"There is a real level of trust. This is where the chemistry comes from. It is about trusting and nothing else," shared Cone.

But the Mixers - which Cone referred to as "big dragons," - will have to watch out for the Air21 Express whose players won't back down.

After dwelling in the cellar for the past three seasons, the Air21 (formerly Shopinas.com) franchise bagged their maiden Final Four appearance, as they fought their way to oust the mighty San Miguel Beermen.

"We literally came from the bottom and worked our way up against all odds," said forward Mike Burtscher.

Franz Pumaren's soldiers slayed the dragons behind the juggernaut of Asi Taulava and Sean Anthony in the series.

The 41-year-old Taulava became a youthful and ruthless monster, logging 16.5 PPG and 8.5 RPG in the quarterfinals as he severely bullied the Beermen frontline.

Anthony infused endless amounts of hustle and imposed hard-nosed defense en route to collecting one loose ball after the other and stopping the Beermen's offense. It is only his fifth game back in the conference yet the Fil-Canadian forward has averaged 21.5 PPG and 9.5 RPG in the quarterfinals.

Together, the two kept Air21 in the conference, the same way the Mixers' Marc Pingris' valiant effort has kept San Mig Coffee on track.

The Mixers' victories spell hustle. They turned the series to their favor after keeping Alaska to just 65 points on 35.6% shooting in their last two games. Their defense enabled them to log +9.5 in turnover points, +3 in steals, and 3.5 less turnovers than the Aces.

But the Express are also fond of doing the dirty work. The gang of Anthony, Mike Burstcher, and even Mac Cardona are out there to give San Mig all that they could handle.

"I take a lot of pride in my defense and hustle. I am excited to play these energy guys. We are matching up very good against any team at this point (on defense)," claimed Burstcher.

In the San Miguel series particularly, the Express forced a whopping 49 turnovers in two games, which became 42 points of their own.

Key match-up

Asi Taulava (13 PPG, 10 RPG) vs James Mays (20.6 PPG, 16.4 RPG)

After shutting down San Miguel's June Mar Fajardo (and eventually knocking him out of the Best Player race this conference), Taulava is in for another tough grind this time against James Mays. Taulava's Herculian task is to keep Mays out of the paint to prevent offensive boards and second chance points. Mays meanwhile must put up a body on Taulava at all times to stop the ageless big man. Expect a lot of pushing and shoving in this battle between the two heavyweights.

X-Factors

Air21: Joseph Yeo

Joseph Yeo's firepower will be tested against PJ Simon and James Yap, but more than his offense, the fiery wing man of the Express must keep his cool in the entire series.

San Mig: Marc Pingris

The Mixers' heart and soul on defense is the perfect guy to stop Wesley Witherspoon one on one. Witherspoon likes to facilitate Air21's offense and having a man to disturb him may shatter the Express' offensive sets.

The question

Does Air21 have enough gas left on their tank?

The Express, like what Anthony said in their San Miguel series, has nothing to lose and everything to achieve. They will go up against all odds anew, but this time they are facing an even more relentless squad in San Mig Coffee - a team that has copped the last two PBA titles. Experience favors the Mixers but if the Express will take it one possession at a time and play perfect basketball, this semifinal match-up will go the distance.

Rappler pick

It will all boil down hustle, and the desire that fuels both teams to make it to the Promised Land. Both teams are embattled heading into the semifinals. Both won their last two do-or-die matches. Diving for loose balls, sacrificing bodies, imposing in-your-face defenses will show up evidently in the tussle as both teams try to emerge victorious. San Mig Coffee in 5.

- Rappler.com