MANILA, Philippines – If the San Miguel Beermen lose to the Alaska Aces in the 2015 PBA Philippine Cup, Head Coach Leo Austria may end up re-living the events of game one on Wednesday, January 7, over and over again in his head for a very long time.
Just like how Heat fans continue to think about game two against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals in that "what could have been" scenario... and that was 4 years ago.
When the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals and earned the mockery of the sports world, Heat fans were quick to point out game two of the series as the turning point that led to their team's heartbreaking downfall.
Miami had a 15-point lead with less than 6 minutes to go in the fourth. Had they held on for the win, they would have taken a commanding 2-0 series lead.
Simply said, forgetting defeats such as San Miguel's in game one is easier said than done.
From blowing a 27-5 lead, to coughing up the ball one possession after another, to missing multiple potential game-winners down the stretch, the Beermen made multiple key mistakes that led to Alaska drawing first blood in the series.
Alex Cabagnot being virtually non-existent. Chris Lutz playing a near flawless game save for one horrible mental lapse that cost his team a crack at a buzzer-beater.
"We should have called a time-out, but sometimes hindi makita nang player eh (the player can't see)," said Austria on Lutz' premature heave.
Fajardo is a 69% free throw shooter this conference. He went 26-of-34 from the foul line in SMB's semis sweep over TNT - including 11-of-11 in game two, where he made 8 FTs down the stretch of the fourth quarter to seal the game. But in game one, he missed free throw that could have sealed the win.
Game two is on Friday, January 9, giving SMB an opportunity to erase the pitfalls of game one right away. But until then, the Beermen have to live with the repercussions of blowing an incredible chance at a 1-0 lead.
"I really don't know what really happened to us," a perplexed Coach Austria said after the loss. "We had a good start. We were leading by  points and we were not able to sustain our intensity. Because of the bench of Alaska, I think that's the factor. The bench of Alaska, I think, scored more than 50 points."
Austria was off by 11 points. Alaska's bench contributed a whopping 61 points. San Miguel's just had 20. But when Calvin Abueva, the Aces' best player and arguably the best player in the PBA this conference, comes off the bench, it's a given the Aces will win the battle of the second units, and kudos to Coach Alex Compton for making the move. Abueva is averaging 16.1 PPG, 11.6 RPG, and 2.9APG this conference while playing just 27.1 minutes per game.
But what really killed San Miguel was turnovers. "We committed a lot of turnovers - 26. How can we win a championship if we commit 26 turnovers?" asked the Beermen's head coach.
Alaska didn't even take much advantage of SMB's TOs, scoring just 13 points off it. But by shooting themselves on the foot repeatedly with head-shaking mistakes - a bad entry pass to the post, a careless cross-court pass, picking up their dribble when the Aces were using their press defense - SMB could not put the final exclamation point on game one, and that gave the Aces enough room to mount their comeback.
"Turnovers nag patalo saamin. Wala nang iba," said Arwind Santos, who's lack of aggression by settling for jumpers hurt San Miguel. He finished with 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting, and had 7 turnovers himself. "Yung pressure nila tsaka yung mga ibang pasa na hindi namin na i-pasa nang maayos," he specified, was their main culprit of their demise.
(Turnovers made us lose. Nothing else. Their pressure defense and some of our miscalculated passes cost us.)
Like Santos, Cabagnot was also a non-factor against Alaska. He was supposed to rival Abueva's production off the bench, but instead, he finished with just 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting and was outplayed by rookie Chris Banchero, who hounded Cabagnot with his pesky defense all-game long and recorded 16 points on only 10 shots - easily his best game as a pro.
Cabagnot's contributions are crucial for a San Miguel championship, especially with the way the Aces are going to guard Fajardo.
After an 8-point, 4-rebound, 2-block first quarter in game one, the reigning PBA MVP finished with 14 points and 17 rebounds, but took just 9 shots thanks to Alaska's constant fronting defense coupled with double and triple teams.
"They did a good job against June Mar and the missing links [that I rely on didn't produce], but again I have to give credit to Alaska because of their defense," said Austria.
For Fajardo, taking 9 shots isn't ideal - not when there's no one guy in the PBA that can stop him one-on-one. Despite that, he still had an opportunity to win the game with 8 seconds left. He was given the task MVPs are supposed to accomplish. The game was on the line. The pressure was at its highest. And he could have brought his team to victory by sinking two free throws - something he's done very well over the past few weeks.
His first attempt didn't have any life as it left its hand and barely grazed the front of the rim. The second attempt clanked off the back of the iron, but the basketball gods gave the PBA's most dominant force a fortunate bounce. He went 1-of-2, which was enough to force overtime. But Fajardo's no longer the superstar-in-the-making he was the past two years; he's the best big man in the country today, and maybe soon enough in the entire Asian continent. With that comes lofty expectations. He's supposed to make both shots. And he knows it.
"Nag-mintis eh. Kasalanan ko yun," Fajardo said before later adding: "Malaking bagay yung free throw sa huli."
(I missed. It's my fault. The missed free throw at the end was huge.)
In game two, San Miguel must figure out how to attack Alaska's interior defense and get the ball to Fajardo. They can't fall prey to the Aces' press defense, and they can't let Abueva go off for 22 points and 10 rebounds again. Guys like Cabagnot and Santos will have to step up. And Lutz, who had 24 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists, will need to display the same aggressiveness and assert his will for his team to tie the series.
But most of all, SMB needs to stop digging their own grave with turnovers. "I think composure lang ang kailangan i-adjust namin," said Austria. Beating the Aces is hard enough, and helping them out with mind-boggling miscues is going to be the nail in the coffin for San Miguel.
"Walang madali. Finals na ito eh. Hindi na easy. Sana makahanap kami nang game plan tsaka maka-adjust kami sa next game," said Fajardo.
(Nothing's easy. It's the finals. It's not easy anymore. Hopefully we can find a game plan and we can adjust for the next game.)
"Bounce back na lang next game."
(We just have to bounce back next game.)