MANILA, Philippines – On one side are the guys holding the throne, eager to maintain their dominance atop the Philippine Basketball Association. On the other end, a group of title-starved and battle-tested veterans who are hoping to finally break through and reclaim the honor as the PBA’s best.
Only one can advance.
Rappler takes a look at what is expected to be a physical battle between the San Miguel Beermen and the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters ahead of their best-of-7 semifinal series in the 2016 PBA Philippine Cup playoffs.
The series commences with Game 1 on Tuesday, January 5, at 7 pm at the Mall of Asia Arena.
(SCHEDULE: 2016 PBA Philippine Cup semifinals)
Road to the semis
The Beermen entered the PBA season as favorites to repeat as Philippine Cup champions and quickly displayed their potential with a deeper and even more experienced roster out of the gates.
Led by the clear-cut best player in the PBA today and two-time reigning league MVP, June Mar Fajardo, San Miguel lost only twice in 11 elimination round games, with most of its victories coming via comfortable margins.
San Miguel nearly blew its chance at a quarterfinals bye by losing to Alaska in their ender, but an unusual mishap by the team they’re about to face helped them clinch the number two seed and a free ticket to the semis.
It was tough to predict how Rain or Shine would do entering the season after it was announced that their best player, Paul Lee, would be out for two months due to a slight tear in his ACL.
Through that, the Elasto Painters have maintained their reputation as title contenders thanks to pesky defense, toughness, unselfishness on offense, and unpredictability – trademarks of a Yeng Guiao-coached team.
Rain or Shine blew gaining the top seed due to a defeat to the NLEX Road Warriors, but going through the rougher road – having to beat Blackwater and Talk ’N Text – will prove dividends, their head coach believes.
“It’s a blessing in disguise we had to go through the hard way, but this is just going to toughen us up going into the semifinals. That’s how we look at it. That’s our perspective. We want to look at this thing in a positive way,” said Guiao, the 56-year-old, 6-time champion.
When Game 1 tips off, it will have been 3 weeks since San Miguel last played. Whether it’s going to be rust that slows them down or adequate rest that gives them a hot start, battling a Rain or Shine team that’s on a roll will be difficult.
Keys to victory
One of the teams that beat San Miguel during the elims was Rain or Shine, and they accomplished that thanks to two key things:
On defense, the Elasto Painters took away the Beermen’s biggest strength and forced the other guys to beat them. Fajardo, who on some nights can just walk his way to a 20-point, 20-rebound performance, was limited to only 7 shot attempts for 13 points to go with 10 boards.
That number of shots is misleading because the MVP did take 12 free throws, although when you compare it to the number of attempts other San Miguel players took, there’s no wonder why Rain or Shine took control of the contest:
Arwind Santos: 12 points, 5-of-18 FG (2-of-11 3PT FG)
Alex Cabagnot: 16 points, 6-of-17 FG (2-of-9 3PT FG)
Marcio Lassiter: 10 points, 4-of-13 FG (0-of-6 3PT FG)
Chris Ross: 10 points, 4-of-9 FG (1-of-2 3PT FG)
Gabby Espinas: 10 points, 4-of-8 FG (1-of-1 3PT FG)
That’s 5 guys who took more shot attempts than the best pure Filipino basketball player alive today, which is unacceptable.
Cabagnot, the starting point guard, holds the key here. While he’s undoubtedly a talented scorer, his top priority must to be able to feed Fajardo the ball.
But the Elasto Painters won’t make it easy as they will once again double-team June Mar and blanket him in the post, considering how well the tactic worked last time.
To counter that, San Miguel must hit its 3-pointers. The Beermen are dangerous with just the presence of Fajardo in the post, but they will need the threat of being able to spread the floor to complement that and have a well-rounded attack – a necessity to beat Rain or Shine.
San Miguel hit an abysmal 7-of-34 (21%) in the loss to the Elasto Painters, and for this conference has shot only 31% from outside. Until they make Rain or Shine pay for leaving guys open, Guiao will gladly tell his team to double or triple team Fajardo and force him to kick out to the misfiring shooters.
Lassiter, who to some is the best shooter in the PBA today, is nailing only 34.8% of his 3-balls this season. Santos is shooting it at 29.3%. Cabagnot is at 28.1%. Ronald Tubid at 26.1%. Not good enough.
But the key to victory for Rain or Shine doesn’t just lie on defense. You can limit San Miguel on that end for only so long, which is why the offense will have to click too.
In the elimination round win, Rain or Shine played a lot of Beau Belga with Raymond Almazan – a PF-C duo that draws Fajardo from the paint.
Belga, who shot 3-of-6 from 3 in the win, is respectable enough from downtown that you can’t leave him open, and Almazan is more of a pick-and-roll big rather than someone who works with his back to the basket – the kind of style that fits his coach’s preferred system.
Having Belga spread the floor to draw a San Miguel big while Almazan provides screens for guys like Maverick Ahanmisi and Jeff Chan leaves San Miguel head coach Leo Austria in a tricky spot:
Does he have Fajardo stay in the paint and concede the open jumper by the ball-handler, or does he ask his rim protector to come out on the pick and open the paint for Rain or Shine’s cutters to attack?
Check out this play right here, which starts with Almazan giving Ahanmisi a screen so he can get loose from his defender, Chris Ross, while Fajardo (Almazan’s man) stays near the rim:
Because of the screen, Ahanmisi, now away from his initial defender, is able to get to the paint where he has two options: take the mid-range jumper/floater, or drop the ball off to the cutting Almazan:
Any of the two scoring options is viable, and Ahanmisi was able to put two points on the board with the tear drop.
One thing San Miguel tried to do to stop the penetration of the ball-handler while keeping Fajardo in the paint was to have their closest guy defending another Rain or Shine player nearby leave his man and clog the penetrator’s lane to the basket.
It came back to bite them in the ass.
The moment the San Miguel player left his man to stop the ball-handler, it led to easy shooting opportunities.
The Elasto Painters shot 13-of-29 from downtown (45%). Norwood hit 4-of-5 from deep. Chan was 3-of-6. Chris Tiu was 2-of-5. Most of their attempts were open, and this was why:
The action here begins with Belga giving Ahanmisi a screen so he can get rid of Ross. Realizing that the Rain or Shine rookie is about to have a clear path to the paint, Santos, who’s guarding Norwood, leaves his man to stop Ahanmisi:
Ahanmisi sees Santos coming, and dishes it out to the open Norwood:
Santos tries to recover in time and contest Norwood’s 3-pointer, but before he can even gather himself to leap and impede Norwood’s vision, the Rain or Shine forward is already on the way up and nearly done with his shooting motion, leading to the made 3-ball:
This is where having Paul Lee back makes Rain or Shine an even bigger headache. By playing him together with Ahanmisi/Tiu and Chan/Jericho Cruz, the Elasto Painters have 3 guys on the court who can operate the pick-and-roll with the bigs and can be threats away from the ball as well due to their 3-point shooting.
For instance: if Guiao uses a Lee-Ahanmisi-Chan-Norwood-Almazan lineup, he has 4 capable shooters with one center who’s lethal rolling to the rim.
Suddenly, San Miguel has to pick its poison: does it keep Fajardo in the paint and concede easy pull-up jumpers for the ball-handlers who can shoot? Does it have Fajardo come out of the paint and open penetration? Or does it keep rotating guys and risk Rain or Shine finding the open 3-point shooter?
The best option here would be the number 3. Just like San Miguel’s chance to make the finals against Alaska or GlobalPort depends on how hot and cold its 3-point shooters will be, it will likely be the same for the Elasto Painters.
If Rain or Shine is cold from outside, Austria will certainly tell the nearest Beermen defenders to keep rotating and making sure that no ball-handler gets to the paint.
Belga and Chan are shooting 40% and 46.3% from 3 respectively, which are remarkable, but Norwood is hitting only 35.5%, Ahanmisi 23.8%, and Tiu 30.8%.
Lee will also surely not yet be 100% right away, as his head coach admits, plus having his first games this season against the reigning champions feels like trial by fire.
Who will win?
It’s a coin flip. The series can go as far as 6 or 7 games, depending on how hot each team gets from outside. If the Beermen get in a shooting rhythm early and force the Elasto Painters to stay home on the shooters, that will open the door for Fajardo to take over and potentially end the series in 5, but if Rain or Shine’s snipers get going, they can steal the first two games and take control of the series.
I’m going to take San Miguel in 6 games, simply because its shooters have stepped up multiple times in its championship runs last season, and Fajardo has always found a way to get going – even after slow starts.
Statistics in this article taken from Humble Bola’s PBA stats.
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