Having once been on the brink of getting swept embarrassingly in a best-of-7 for the first time in franchise history, the San Miguel Beermen have clawed back remarkably and are a win away from pulling off a highly-improbable feat.
Having dropped their first three assignments in the series, the Beermen took home Games 4 to 6 to tie the exciting series at 3-3. With a four-day break in between Games 6 and 7, both sides will be able to recuperate and be fresh heading into the final war.
And it comes down to that. Both sides know winning to go up three games to none mean nothing, same as winning three games after falling down to a 0-3 hole. It makes Game 7 the single most important match of the conference for Alaska and San Miguel, after taking long roads towards the championship round.
Another ‘Beeracle run’
The term ‘Beeracle’ — an amalgamation of the words “beer”, from the franchise’s product, and “miracle” — first came into popularity during the 2007 PBA Fiesta Conference when the sixth-seeded San Miguel side had overwhelmed pundits.
That Beermen squad, led by import Galen Young, finished sixth in the elimination round and in the format, they had to go through a two-round single-elimination playoff against the seventh, eighth, and ninth teams.
They first trounced the ninth-seeded Sta. Lucia Realtors, before moving on to beat the Coca-cola Tigers by a hairline, 102-101. The odds were still stacked against them when they faced third-seeded Barangay Ginebra in the best-of-3 quarter-finals. Not many were high on how the team could last in the playoffs.
San Miguel dropped the first game, but went on to win Games 2 and 3 (Game 3 went to overtime) to shock then-favorites Ginebra and advance to the semi-finals, where eventual champions Alaska Aces finally ended their run, 4-2.
It was a ‘miracle’ in a sense that the Beermen were huge underdogs against the rest of the competition. Nine years later, the Beermen faithful are using the term again. And how the Beermen were able to stay in the hunt for a second straight Philippine Cup crown, despite all the adversity, should not be taken away from them.
They have handled the first four games minus their superstar center June Mar Fajardo, and picked up an emotional Game 4 victory which set the stage for a potential history-changing comeback.
Players are still shocked over how they were able to arrive at this point, and it was a product of sticking together and playing an approach that perhaps not many teams would have been able to do.
“Hindi ko akalain. Noong na 0-3 kami, ang iniisip lang namin makaisa lang, okay na kami,” Arwind Santos said. “Ngayon nagulat kami. Ngayon nasa pintuan na kami, kakatok na lang kami ng maayos para makapasok.”
Perhaps the most polarizing figure in a San Miguel uniform, Santos showed the leadership in crucial stretches to help his team gain momentum.
He singled out “decision-making in the end (of games)” as the main difference between the first three games and the last three of the series, and it was evident that the Beermen showed more composure.
“Noong 0-3, parang yung hinga namin tama lang eh,” he said. “Tapos noong nanalo kami ng una, pangalawa, pangatlo, nakakahinga na kami ng maluwag. Parang mas komportable kami pero (syempre) hindi natin masasabing kayang-kaya namin sila. Itong Game 7, kung anong meron kaming natatago, ilabas na namin.”
Fajardo’s absence also paved the way for San Miguel to utilize their support group. In the past, the franchise had kept its stars but always made a few moves in order to get even more reliable pieces. And those decisions made by the front office have paid dividends in a finals series not many expected to last, given the case of Fajardo.
“Yan ang isang magandang nangyari noong wala si June Mar. Yancy (de Ocampo), Gabby (Espinas), even Jay-R (Reyes), may mga games yang pinapakita. Nagkaroon sila ng kumpiyansa at hindi lang sila parang reliever eh. Kasama na talaga sila sa rotation,” head coach Leo Austria said of his other bigs.
It was a two-fold move, giving San Miguel assurance they would still have enough depth if something goes wrong to their stars, and giving the same stars enough rest in even the most exhausting games.
And Austria has done a tremendous job incorporating Fajardo back into the rotation while not messing up the finals rotation they had gotten used to. It could have been a tricky problem for the mentor at a win-or-go-home stage, but he did just enough to give Fajardo back his rhythm, while also sustaining the good play of the likes of Espinas and De Ocampo who have all given positive impact in the series.
“Nagco-contribute sila offensively and defensively and that is good for June Mar and Arwind now nagkakaroon sila ng enough time magpahinga para may lakas pa sila for fourth quarter or crucial situation,” Austria added.
And with Fajardo back, the Beermen looked even more inspired to continue going and knocking on the door.
“Noong first three games ng finals, nafrustrate talaga ako. Kasi pinaghirapan namin yung offseason tapos makaabot sa finals tapos na-injure ako. Syempre nakakafrustrate yun na wala kang maitulong sa team mo kundi magdasal. Nasa harap ka lang ng TV, nanggigil ako, sana nasa loob ako ng court. Ngayon nakasama ko na sila, sobrang saya makapaglaro sa finals,” Fajardo shared Friday.
“Last game na yung Game 7. Lahat ng players, lahat ng teams pinangarap makalaro sa finals. Kailangan namin manalo sa Game 7, kaya kailangan ready kami.”
Back to basics
They entered each game not minding what the series standing is; they only played to win, which is every athlete’s competitive nature. They did not think that “we need to win because we’re down in the series”, but instead approached each game thinking “we need to win because we can and that’s what athletes do anyway”.
For three straight games they performed just the same way they have done in tune-ups, elimination games, or playoff games. Good, solid, efficient basketball coupled with fundamental habits, minus overthinking, and only focusing on the task at hand.
“I’ve been telling my players, in the playoffs, it’s all basics. Talagang kung anong knowledge mo sa basketball, ilabas mo na. No fancy. Talent is just a bonus. Yung skills, dyan mo makikita ano ginawa niyo sa offseason,” Austria shared, hoping the group gives it a hundred percent for one last time.
“I think they will exert all the effort sa Game 7 at maging all-out sila. And they have time to recharge.”
“Yung talent minsan nandyan pero natatalo ng talino ang talent. Kasi natatalo kami minsan ng turnover, o yung in the end, konting-konti na lang hindi pa namin sinagad,” Santos added.
And now the Beermen are on the verge of overcoming a 0-3 hole and winning a best-of-7 title series, because of those basics.