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MANILA, Philippines – The burden on June Mar Fajardo’s shoulders was significantly lighter in the last two games of San Miguel Beer’s semifinals against Rain or Shine in the 2016 PBA Philippine Cup.
The hulking 6-foot-10 big man appeared stronger and certainly no longer frazzled, especially in Game 5 of of the best-of-7 series, despite logging his usual 40-minute average.
Fajardo finished with a series-low 27 points and 12 rebounds on Wednesday, January 13 as the defending champions finally figured out a way to distribute the offense and ease the load off of the league’s reigning back-to-back MVP.
“Even though I play long minutes on the court, the ball isn’t always dumped to me so I can catch my breath,” Fajardo, who is also on pace for another Best Player of the Conference award, welcomed the positive development as the defending champions took a 3-2 series lead.
“Our bench played well. Everyone stepped up and our defense was good. We ran our plays,” he added, speaking in Filipino.
Fajardo averaged only 30 points for Games 4 and 5. His 33 points and 15 rebounds in Game 4, when San Miguel tied the series at 2-2, was then his lowest output of the series before he set a new low in a 103-94 Game 5 win. He also averaged just 13.5 boards in the last two games compared to 18.3 rebounds in the first 3 games.
In most cases, seeing your MVP’s numbers dip is usually a sign of trouble or a cause for concern. But in this instance, head coach Leo Austria and the rest of the Beermen are happy Fajardo does not have to run himself to the ground for them to win.
“We identified in what areas we need to attack. A lot of players became familiar with the game plan,” Austria described what changes lessened the strain on Fajardo. “Unlike the first two games they want to win, they want to play on their own. This is a team sport so you have to play as a team.”
In the first 3 games of the series, Fajardo normed 38 points. He dropped a series-high 40 points to go with 20 rebounds in Game 3 that went for naught as San Miguel lost, 111-106.
The series turned in Game 4, when 5 San Miguel players made it to double-digits with Marcio Lassiter and Arwind Santos exploding for 20 and 19 points, respectively. Lassiter made all 4 of his attempts from 3-point range as the Beermen’s starters came through to back Fajardo.
That play carried over Wednesday as 4 Beermen, including Fajardo, finished in double figures (Alex Cabagnot 14, Lassiter 12, Santos 12), and 3 players were just a point shy of that with 9 apiece (Gabby Espinas, Chris Ross, and Ronald Tubid).
“That’s really what we wanted because we feel sorry for June Mar already always having to get the ball,” admitted guard Ryan Araña in Filipino as he contributed a much-needed series-high 8 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in Game 5. “We have a greater chance of winning if our bench contributes in scoring and also on defense.”
But having ample support from the rest of the team does not mean Fajardo, for all his exceptional basketball dominance, will not be exploited to finish off Rain or Shine in Game 6.
“We’ve been criticized for allowing June Mar to play 40 or 38 minutes a game. But remember he keeps on scoring 38 points a game. So I think if he keeps on scoring, he will stay inside,” Austria explained.
“It’s the same to any other player. If our point guard scores every quarter so probably he will get longer minutes. That’s what coaches are looking for, when your players click, you keep them inside. I’m just reacting to the performance of the player.”
San Miguel will try to replicate similar success Friday night, January 15 in a bid to end the series and enter the finals anew to face the waiting Alaska. (SCHEDULE: 2016 PBA Philippine Cup semifinals)
#PBA: June Mar Fajardo after San Miguel's Game 5 winPosted by Jane Yvette Bracher on Wednesday, 13 January 2016