Unleash the Beast. Release the Kraken. This conference’s final showdown is heading towards colossal proportions.
The last time Alaska and San Miguel faced off for the title was back in the 2009-2010 Fiesta Conference, when the Aces won in a six-game slugfest. Only six players remain on each squad’s iteration from that series, and the seventh, Dondon Hontiveros, was still donning the Beermen’s colors back then.
Much like the heated Manila Clasico matchup between Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and Purefoods Star Hotshots, an Alaska-San Miguel tiff is a tradition that resonates loudly among the older generation of PBA diehards, as it juxtaposed Alaska’s systematic Triangle Offense against San Miguel’s breathtaking highlights and daredevil forays to the hoop. Just ask resident imports Sean Chambers and Lamont Strothers.
Now, the stylistic clash between both teams remains clear as daylight. San Miguel rose to the top of the elimination round and earned a bye to the semifinals thanks to a vaunted offensive frontline spearheaded by June Mar Fajardo and Arwind Santos.
The two operated ruggedly on the low and high post, battering smaller centers and forwards in the way to get their baskets down low. Against a hapless Talk ‘N Text who did not have anyone who can consistently cover the two, San Miguel ran roughshod over them in a convincing four-game sweep.
On the other hand, Alaska continues to run some semblance of the Triangle, smattered with Calvin Abueva’s best impersonation of a bulldozer every now and then. In Game 4 of the semifinals against Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, Alaska managed to evade a critical Abueva suspension that would have swung the balance of the series.
Thanks to five clutch three-pointers by Dondon Hontiveros in the fourth quarter of Game 6, the Aces were able to book another date with San Miguel, whom they have already faced in the Finals six times prior, winning four of them.
The two most successful powerhouses remain as hungry as ever. San Miguel is looking to claim their 20th trophy while Alaska aims for its 15th. Whoever wins this series will have the claim of owning five All-Filipino championships, the conference with the most bragging rights at stake.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Make no mistake: Alex Compton is no poor man’s Tim Cone. Compton has spiced up Alaska’s playbook by demanding more run-and-gun action on the open court, emphasizing the strengths of Abueva, Cyrus Baguio, and Chris Banchero. He has also laid in place a sound defensive system, maximizing the scrappiness of guys like Ping Exciminano and even journeymen like Eric Menk.
For San Miguel, the turnstile of coaches coming in and out hampered continuity, and under Leo Austria, the team may have finally found an anchor, a sense of stability. Though the Beermen were just as loaded with talent in previous conferences, they could never seem to gel together and needed a strong motivator who can rally the troops. Austria is exactly what the doctor ordered.
There is added history between both coaches, as Compton was second in command when Austria handled coaching duties for the Welcoat Dragons back in 2006 until 2008.
JVee Casio has been mired in a mini-shooting slump during the semifinals, but expect him to continue getting the green light as Alaska needs as much spacing to keep the Beermen’s defense continually guessing. It will be imperative for Alaska’s floor general to continually scan the floor for any roaming slashers, as the only chances for the Aces to get a headstart would be to draw San Miguel’s bigs in early foul trouble.
The man of the moment for San Miguel is still Alex Cabagnot. The outcome of this series will ultimately tell if reacquiring him for Sol Mercado was a wise transaction solely from a basketball perspective, controversy aside. It may be unfair to put all the blame on one person if San Miguel fails to win the title. Unfortunately, that is the burden Cabagnot must carry through no fault of his own. His marksmanship from outside in the dying minutes of the game will be counted on as he acts as the safety valve when defenses close in on Fajardo.
Though Father Time may have stolen half a step from him, Cyrus Baguio continues to pace Alaska’s transition attack whenever he is on the floor. His craftiness and ability to swerve through the creases in the defense gives Alaska new wrinkles on offense. He might be forced into a spot-up shooting role once San Miguel’s defense has set itself up properly, but he should still be able to get to the line enough times for the Beermen to keep an eye on him at all times.
Chris Lutz tends to drift in and out of San Miguel’s offense, getting disengaged with the set plays being run from time to time. Since he splits playing time with Ronald Pascual and Chris Ross, he will need to create an immediate impact, particularly on the defensive end where he has to stay home on Alaska’s shooters. Often referenced to the Lutz family in the “Amityville Horror” film, he has to terrorize Alaska’s perimeter players and prevent them from getting an easy lane to the basket.
It took a vintage Dondon Hontiveros performance to propel Alaska over Rain or Shine, and one particular moment stood out above the rest. In the waning seconds of the third quarter in Game 5, Hontiveros took the ball coast-to-coast and banked in a running trey at the horn, halting any momentum the Elasto Painters had entering the final canto. Relishing the opportunity to face his former team on the biggest stage for the first time, how will the Cebuano hotshot fare from long range in spite of nagging foot and ankle injuries?
Marcio Lassiter is easily San Miguel’s best two-way perimeter player. Though his outside shooting remains a work in progress, he recently received praise from Hontiveros himself, calling Lassiter a better version of himself. Expectations on Lassiter to deliver at the highest level is paramount, and he has to extricate himself from Alaska’s constant trapping defense to provide ample scoring support for the Beermen.
Calvin Abueva is a hot name for the Best Player of the Conference plum, and for legitimate reasons. Where would Alaska be without him impacting the game on both ends of the floor? Enzo Flojo has championed Abueva in the early MVP season race, stating that his contagious aggressiveness has clearly rubbed off on his teammates to play with more vigor and energy. He tips the scales so much that Compton considered completely overhauling the playbook in order to accommodate the Beast’s physical style of play.
Arwind Santos, once the MVP and centerpiece of the Beermen, has now slid comfortably into the sidekick role, flashing for pick-and-pops, sliding for backdoor finishes, and playing decoy on a team with a 6’10” behemoth. San Miguel seems to have a plethora of power forwards, stretch fours, and tweeners, but in the critical junctures of the game, it is best to let Santos operate on the high block and create something from nothing.
After containing the likes of Beau Belga and JR Quinahan in the previous round, Sonny Thoss will be tasked to stay in front of the Kraken, which is the most unenviable task you can throw any PBA slotman. Giving up at least two inches in height and over 50 pounds in heft, Thoss will have to rely on his balance so as not to get pushed around in the paint. On offense, expect him to take a lot more 10-15 foot jumpers as he draws Fajardo away from the shaded area. Everything Thoss will do in this series will be reactionary, as forcing the issue in the paint will only lead to multiple embarrassing rejections.
Gil Lopez cited June Mar Fajardo as this conference’s most effective scorer, taking into account the scoring possession factor. San Miguel’s prized big man will not parade to the basket as easily as he did against Talk ‘N Text, but he should have his way against a shorter Thoss and a slower Menk. Alaska has 24 fouls to spare between those two as well as Abueva and Gabby Espinas, but Fajardo is a much better free throw shooter than is worth hacking when he gets the ball down low.
Alaska needs as much firepower as it can get from long range, an if Casio and Hontiveros are unable to get decent attempts early on, Compton may have to force his hand on RJ Jazul, who can play the combo guard role with ease, stretch the floor, and frustrate the primary ballhandler on the other end.
Meanwhile, “The Saint” will get another shot at glory. Ronald Tubid, one of the league’s microwave players, is a human trump card that San Miguel can bank on to create 6-0 and 8-0 runs out of nowhere. He has a mean streak that can turn the tide of the game and swing the momentum towards the Beermen’s favor when things start to go awry.
Prediction: San Miguel has the pieces to neutralize Alaska’s physicality and should be able to break the Aces’ pesky defense with their immense size. Alaska will catch fire from outside for a couple of games, but won’t knock down threes consistently enough to prevent the Beermen’s charge to title number 20.
Beermen in 6.