San Miguel’s row looked noticeably smaller after the pre-finals call-outs prior to Game 1’s tip-off in the PBA Philippine Cup finals Sunday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
The Beermen shook hands with the Alaska Aces at centercourt as part of the tradition, but this time without the usual 6-foot-11 presence always part of it.
It was odd not seeing June Mar Fajardo surface out of the San Miguel dugout the way the behemoth always used to, as he was taken to the hospital prior to the final buzzer of San Miguel’s win over Rain or Shine last Friday night.
Fajardo sustained an apparent knee injury and everyone, regardless of fandom, gasped collectively when Fajardo clutched his left knee and grimaced in pain.
Whether a Beermen fan, an Elasto Painters fan, a Gilas Pilipinas fan, or simply a Philippine basketball fan appreciative of talent and greatness, it was disheartening to see one of the pillars of Philippine hoops today fall in a disturbing manner.
Being the standard among bigs today, seeing Fajardo missing the game is like having the hoop gods take away a huge part of basketball.
“When we saw June Mar go down, it was tough for us. But we know we had to gather around and we felt we have to step up,” Marcio Lassiter said.
But head coach Leo Austria had always preached about sacrifice among his players. As he had previously shared in the past, Fajardo is the focal point of the team but his strength is his teammates. Having everyone contribute makes San Miguel even more unstoppable.
The tenacious Beermen roared back against the Elasto Painters with completeness and sense of urgency.
“Right away, everyone played great and it was a team effort. That’s just how it has to be. A guy comes down, another one steps up,” Lassiter said Friday.
Gabby Espinas scored six straight points in the third period, then Arwind Santos and Marcio Lassiter took charge in the final frame. San Miguel played with more flair and aggressiveness, having the killer instinct to finish the series.
Without Fajardo, reciprocating his greatness for all the hard work he has done throughout the Beermen’s run is the best thing his teammates can accomplish, and they did Friday night.
“Yun na lang yung maitutulong mo sa team. So i-alay mo na lang yung game para sa kanya,” Gabby Espinas said.
“The players, nag-step up sila eh. Si June Mar, they always rely on him. But know, without June Mar, we are still capable of winning a champion but it is really hard. Let’s see what will happen,” Austria added.
The Beermen hardly felt the absence of Fajardo anew when they battled the Aces Sunday in the finals series opener. Yancy de Ocampo took the starting spot and played better than ever. Alex Cabagnot was also locked in and finals mode. Marcio Lassiter exposed mismatches. Gabby Espinas and David Semerad received quality minutes and delivered.
San Miguel worked freely on offense, as players showed what they were all capable of. When Fajardo was still in tow, the Beermen have to stick to the system but without him, things opened up and allowed the players to reactivate the skills or capabilities long part of their respective arsenals.
“Without June Mar, I think the confidence of those players who plays his position will go up. Yung kumpiyansa nila talagang magbabago. Plus yung players around June Mar, they have to step up,” Austria shared.
But it was not enough when the Aces got their bearings back and jumped on a 34-16 fourth quarter onslaught.
The Aces were still trailing 78-66 early in the fourth quarter, when the team finally performed with such tenacity. They forced turnovers with solid defense, ran in transition and finished with easy baskets, and executed well on offense to hack out a 100-91 win in the end.
But despite the loss, the Beermen are still driven by Fajardo’s absence. Signs point to Fajardo still missing about two games, but the defending champions’ mindset is to fight collectively.
San Miguel showed promise in Game 1, and who knows if the team can make the series interesting with the same eagerness.
“He is such a great guy on and off the court. All we can do is pray right now and hope it is nothing serious. It was tough,” Lassiter said. “I felt like it was taking a step back like I was injured. And this is where I am at. I knew I had to work hard and it wasn’t going to be easy. We are all going to step up. It is just going to be a team effort.”