Releasing Wilkerson releases San Miguel's championship form

MANILA, Philippines – The San Miguel Beermen finally looked liked themselves again. 

Marcio Lassiter was hitting 3-pointers with ease, something like a creation from a laboratory modelled after great snipers in Allan Caidic and Dondon Hontiveros (hopefully it stays that way until July).

Alex Cabagnot was gliding and scoring like the player that made him an on-court star in addition to his off-court charm. Has anyone figured out how his body contorts at the most awkward angles, but somehow his shoulders are always squared facing the basket when he releases his shot? Beats me.

Arwind Santos was throwing down dunks and tapping his feet on the backboard, ala Spider-Man (why doesn’t he get technical fouls for this again?) Regardless, it still looks pretty electrifying.

June Mar Fajardo was… well, his numbers didn’t jump off the page. But they didn’t need to. You want to know why? Because the Beermen didn’t need him to play like Wilt Chamberlain. 

In their must-win Game 3 win against Rain or Shine, San Miguel was at its best and championship form. Lassiter finished with 30 points. Cabagnot had 28 in addition to 6 assists. Arwind Santos posted 18 points and 7 boards. Fajardo registered only 13.

We all know Fajardo can score 40 or 50 in any game he wanted to, but here’s the reality: San Miguel, ironically, is at its best when the reigning two-time MVP isn’t the main scoring option.

That was the case on Thursday, when the Elasto Painters squandered an opportunity to finally rid themselves of the rivals that have haunted, defeated, and humiliated them over the past two years. 

Chris Ross of San Miguel Beer helped move the ball around just when the Rain or Shine defense thought it had him cornered. Photo courtesy of PBA Media Bureau

Chris Ross of San Miguel Beer helped move the ball around just when the Rain or Shine defense thought it had him cornered.

Photo courtesy of PBA Media Bureau

Then again, it’s tough to blame Rain or Shine. The ball was moving non-stop for the Beermen. Just when Rain or Shine thought it had Chris Ross trapped in the paint for a turnover, the leather snapped to the weak side where Lassiter was open to knock down one of his 5 triples.

If a defender rotated to Lassiter, he quickly gave it back to an open Cabagnot (2 3-balls) or Santos (4), both of whom were more than happy to launch from downtown. Like clockwork, the ball kept swinging non stop - in-and-out, in-and-out - until San Miguel was able to keep on adding to the scoreboard. Swish after swish.

So what was the key difference from the first two games of the series which Rain or Shine won?

No Tyler Wilkerson.

The Beermen fielded an All-Filipino line-up in Game 3 and came out playing their best game of the series. 

“The players contributed a lot because the playing time and scoring area (that was handed to our import), was taken care of [my] players, especially Marcio, Arwind and June Mar,” said Beermen head coach Leo Austria after the game.

It’s no coincidence San Miguel was this stupendous in the game Wilkerson wasn't even in the arena for. For all his ability to drop buckets, the ball doesn’t move as much when Wilkerson dominates it and shoots nearly as much as Kobe Bryant did in his final career game. Less isolations, more movement.

The result: Austria’s team stays alive, and the quest for a Grand Slam continues. The broom didn't come out sweeping.

“It’s obvious (Wilkerson can do it), the only problem is, he’s not involving his teammates, because he wants to prove (that) he’s the Best Import,” said Austria, unafraid of being frank. 

“And there’s no doubt he’s one of the best imports and best players, but I think what we needed in the team is somebody who could lead us.”

Ask the Beermen and they will tell you Wilkerson isn’t that big of a head case. They even like him. But a verbal dispute in the locker room between coach and import following game two led to Wilkerson walking out on his team, accompanied by an announcement of “Take me back to America.”

A day later, Austria made up his mind: “Yesterday (Wednesday) during our practice I announced it… ‘this is my decision (for Wilkerson not to play), and you have to respect it.’ And if something happens, this is my responsibility as a coach, but I have to do something.”

It turns out the 3-time champion coach made the right call, and the product of that was on display at the Philsports Arena - the same place where the Beermen began their 0-3 comeback against Alaska in last conference's finals, and an arena we may look back at as the venue where they started their 0-2 comeback against ROS.

“We know what we can do. Tyler’s a really, really, really good import, and he was able to score the ball easily and get a lot of rebounds and block shots,” said Ross post-game. “Without Tyler, everyone just took the challenge of stepping up.”

Wilkerson averaged 36.6 points, 14.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and 1.4 steals through 15 games. Those numbers are undoubtedly Best Import-worthy, but ask any long-time basketball fan and he/she will tell you that filling up the box score doesn’t always correlate to winning the game. 

Wilkerson also averaged 25.9 shot attempts per contest, with a lot of those coming at the expense of fluidity in the offense. Did the Beermen know they had a really good recruit? Absolutely. Did it still affect their morale that shots were less distributed? You betcha.

“If you [hear] nothing from your teammates and you keep on firing, (you’ll see they’re not happy). Even though our import scored a lot of points - 56, 52, 40 - (you see they’re not happy),” Austria said.

And just as he finished that sentence, he looked at the TV screen at the press room showing Lassiter’s happy face accompanied by the Best Player of the Game statline that displayed: 30 points, 11/16 shooting, and more. Cabagnot attempted 19 shots. Santos had 18. Fajardo with 11.

Balance, balance, balance. The defense wasn't too shabby as well, limiting Rain or Shine to 39% shooting. Think that's just random? Nope. More chemistry on the court leads to better comunication, and communication is key to getting stops.

Masayang-masaya siya, dahil siya nag benefit duon sa pagkawala nung import dahil mababa yung morale niya, limited yung touches niya,” said Austria, who even added a joke about how his team would have been in Boracay by now if it didn’t stay alive. 

(He’s really happy, because he benefited from the absence of the import because his morale was low since his touches were limited.)

Entering Game 3, Lassiter was 7-of-27 from deep in the playoffs. On Thursday, it seemed like he would never miss from 3 again.

Was Austria in a brighter mood? Sure. Was it only because they finally won? Probably not.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it was all Wilkerson’s fault. 

“He’s a good guy… It happens (that) he wants to win, and (our loss last time), he was really frustrated,” said Austria. 

“He’s just a competitor. I mean, everyone wants to win, no one likes to lose. I don’t fault him for what he did. He didn’t use any bad words… he didn’t physically hurt anyone. He just wants to win,” described Ross, who was a teammate of Wilkerson’s at Marshall U.

It’s this simple: the Beermen needed a change. First, it was on the court. Next, it was off it after the events following Game 2. Wilkerson isn't a bad person, and he's definitely not a bad basketball player.

It just wasn't a partnership meant to last.

San Miguel did its job by staying alive despite the absence of an import, and as a bonus, the team looked like its title-ready form again.

“That’s what we all did - we all stepped up. We know what we have in our locker room,” said Ross.

And help is already on the way. You guys remember AZ Reid, right? Two-time Best Import winner? Led San Miguel to the Governors’ Cup title last season?

He’s supposed to get here on Saturday, likely to play in Game 4 (Sunday, May 1 at 5 pm) and beyond, on a mission to lead San Miguel to banner number 23. He’s remained in shape, and you can be sure he’s just as good as he’s always been.

“I think we have a good chance (if we have an import), especially if the import is AZ (who’s familiar with what we do,)” said Austria.

As for Wilkerson? Thanks for all the help, says San Miguel. But it’s time to move on.

Nandito pa siya, oo,” Austria said. “Siya daw ata susundo kay AZ (Reid),” he later added as an innocent joke.

(He’s still here, yeah. I think he’s the one who will pick up AZ.)

See: told you he was in a brighter mood. – Rappler.com