Basketball fans — even the best of them — have a tendency of boxing teams or players to certain molds. While it may technically be wrong, it’s the type of reality we face in our fast paced world. We see it everyday in the NBA whenever we discuss teams and their respective systems. In the PBA Finals between the San Miguel Beermen and the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok, the stereotyping couldn’t be more evident.
You can use certain keywords or phrases to come up with an image of each team in your head:
San Miguel Beermen: talent, top-heavy, Junemar as the centerpiece, swinging the ball around
Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok: gritty, defense, deep, talented backcourt, pushing the pace
It hasn’t been surprising then to read conversations about both teams centered around those concepts. It’s one thing for fans to talk about it in passing with no real consequences. It’s another for a team to put this into heart.
In Game 3, SMB still continued to run their pet action of dumping it into Junemar, attracting the double team, then allowing the offense to flow from there.
Despite that, the Beermen still did not look right. Instead of a flow coming out of the initial dump pass to Junemar, the Beermen looked stiff. Magnolia’s guards intelligently doubled in correct doses, while making sure San Miguel’s guards would have to work for their three point makes. It paid off, as Magnolia wound up winning, 86-82.
This was uncharted territory San Miguel was suddenly in. Not only were they down 2-1 to a Magnolia team hungry for revenge, but they also looked like they were out of solutions to what Magnolia was giving them. They looked gassed, as if the end of this San Miguel dynasty was starting to show itself.
The last time it felt like the Beermen were in this much trouble in the Philippine Cup was during the 2016 Finals, as they found themselves down 3-0. They didn’t have Junemar Fajardo then, and they needed a sudden burst of energy to climb out of that whole. This time around, they faced a 2-1 deficit. They had Junemar Fajardo, yes, but the difference was, the energy in them looked gone. Magnolia needed just two more wins to destroy this dynasty to pieces.
At the very core of San Miguel’s struggles for the first three games was its spacing. Magnolia’s constant activity and on point rotations proved to be too much for the talented Beermen. Junemar is just one man after all. As good as he was, he still needed the help of his teammates to be given a spaced floor to attack. He didn’t have that space, thus the struggles.
The easiest solution to lack of spacing: shooting! They do always say, “Just surround (star player) with four shooters and you’re fine!” In the NBA, Giannis and LeBron are the perfect examples of this. In the PBA, there’s no better example than Junemar. Coach Leo’s built the San Miguel system around his sheer gravity and surrounding him with shooters has turned a talented group into a historic one.
If there’s something Game 3 taught us aside from control the boards, control the game, it has to be that, three-point shooting isn’t enough. The Beermen did make 10 three-pointers during Game 3, but it took them 43 attempts to get there. Despite the quantity of attempts, Magnolia still stifled their offense and limited them to 82 points.
The easy route to go to is to chalk it up to a bad shooting night. SMB shouldn’t shoot at less than 25 percent from beyond the arc again, right? But that’s always what we said after San Miguel threw up brick after brick in Game 2 of their quarterfinal series versus TNT. Come the next game, the Beermen continued to go ice cold from downtown.
Once again, three-point shooting isn’t enough. It’s a way to get to a spaced floor, but it isn’t everything. We were witness to that during Game 3, as SMB tried to shoot their way into an easier flowing offense. It failed, so they needed to do something else to make things easier for the team. Enter an underrated factor of creating space: movement.
Movement is often associated with teams that are quick, agile, and most importantly, small. In the NBA, the Golden State Warriors epitomize this with their small ball line-up of death. In the PBA, the Magnolia Hotshots terrorize teams with their bevy of guards cutting and driving to the rim with controlled aggressiveness. The Beermen, on the other hand, are a team you don’t exactly connect motion with.
Making the Beermen move may seem like a risk and reasonably so. That’s Magnolia’s game and probably their only advantage versus San Miguel. If you turn the series into a sprint, SMB’s older backcourt may not survive.
That’s what we think though. Saying the Beermen may not even survive is an insult to the talent level of this group. While the trio Fajardo-Santos-Standhardinger gets most of the headlines, we often forget their backcourt is filled with talented players as well.
The thing with movement is it needs energy. For the case of SMB, they needed one player to spark things so the rest could follow. He may be aging, but Alex Cabagnot is still a very good player. Others have limited him to simply being a “token scorer”. He proved otherwise during It isn’t surprising then that in Game 4, it was Cabaggie who amped things up for the Beermen during the first quarter.
Magnolia’s defense may be agile and gritty, but there are still holes to it. After all, it’s impossible for five players to cover up all openings of an offensive team. There will be open seams every now and then. All the offense needs to do is figure out which those seems are based on patterns and trends to how the opposing team is defending them.
Defending San Miguel often forces teams to load up on the low block (Junemar) and the wings (shooters). Rarely will you see San Miguel shoot threes from the top of the key. That isn’t much of a priority to defend for teams and for good reason.
This is where Cabagnot comes in. For most of this conference, Cabagnot has operated as a two guard who attacks best when Junemar kicks it out to him off of a double team. But Magnolia figured that out, so Alex had to change things up come Game 4. It’s not that he had to do things he was uncomfortable with. He simply had to dig deeper into the bag so he could find ways to go through the Hotshots defense. Scoring off the bounce would not be enough. He is an elite talent. He had to create.
It was a refreshing sight then to see Cabagnot attack with aggression to start Game 4. He wasn’t settling into just dumping the ball to Junemar and allowing the offense to flow from there. Either, even if you don’t dump the ball to Junemar, the defense will keep an eye on the Kraken. He’s a five-time MVP. OF COURSE, they would an eye on him. With attention placed on the low block and the wings, there was often an opening not just at the top of the key, but in the middle of the paint. To shoot threes with that much space down low is criminal, 3 > 2 be damned. That’s exactly what Alex did, as he penetrated to the hole with force.
Not only did San Miguel get a number of twos, but they also got another thing; energy. Drives to the rim are a source of power for any team. It forces the team to employ more movement to its action, since you want your guards to have open space to attack. Alex started off the fun. Once he stepped out and protege Terrence Romeo came in, Terrence continued the job.
The particular beauty of this play: this isn’t usually how teams would attack a 2 for 1 situation. The norm today is to pull back and try to shoot a three. Once again, three point shooting isn’t everything. Terrence took it to heart, as he slashed to the rim fearlessly.
There was something to what San Miguel was doing. Despite being down for most of the first quarter, you could feel their energy levels rise with every drive their guards would have. Finally, the flow we’d known from them was starting to come up in bunches. Here came the Beermen.
They’re still the San Miguel Beermen after all, so they still continued to post up Junemar on the low block. He is the best player in the league. Of course, you continue to give him the rock.
But there was a key wrinkle to how San Miguel was now handling the Junemar post-up. Instead of ball watching and praying Fajardo makes the basket, San Miguel now made their forward cut to the rim for possible rebounds, putbacks, or even drop passes. The cut here by Arwind was dangerous as he could have disrupted the space Junemar had at that time. Instead, Junemar drops it off for the possible reverse. Arwind may have missed, but at least Junemar put it back up.
An extra body suddenly barging inside is an extra thing to think about for the defense. This is the San Miguel Beermen, not the San Miguel Fajardos. Force the defense to be concerned about the others and good things will happen.
By the end of the first half, San Miguel finally had control of the basketball game. Cabagnot initiated it, Romeo continued the work, and here was Fajardo putting the finishing touches. The first half, it turns out, was just a preview. We were set to be witness to something far greater during the third quarter.
From the get go, Junemar changed his approach to how he’d attack in the low block. Too often do we see Junemar catch the ball, then attack two seconds later. This stalled the offense and in the process reduced energy levels within the team. They needed energy. They needed movement. Junemar needed to attack quicker when he got to the ball in the low post. That’s exactly what he did to the delight of San Miguel fans.
The team started to recognize the advantage they had. Oh yeah. Our Kraken isn’t just huge. He’s also pretty damn agile for a guy his size. Chuck Araneta put it best. Junemar rumbled to the rim. A scary sight for any team.
The Magnolia defense suddenly looked flabbergasted. Technically, this is their game. They loved to play fast and make their guards create using all of the open space. But San Miguel was somehow outplaying them at doing just that. The flow of the Beermen was back. The energy was all over the floor. With movement being given a premium, making three-pointers became easier for the defending Philippine Cup champions.
Kick out from the paint. Swing to the wing. Swish. Classic San Miguel.
By the end of the game, San Miguel came out with a clip of 11/25 from three, a large improvement from their 10-43 output in Game 3. Quantity > quality, always. San Miguel’s quality came from the movement that it employed and the rest followed.
The Beermen took the risk of playing what many perceived to be Magnolia’s game. The Hotshots guards thrive on speed and open space after all. But here’s the thing with: the talent of San Miguel allows them to play a variety of styles that can match whatever the other can throw at them. San Miguel isn’t just a dump it to the past, swing the ball type of team. Try to run and they will do their darned best to follow suit. When they play with energy they can become very tough to stop.
That’s not to say everything is perfect for San Miguel moving forward. They still have to address a number of problems, including an Ian Sangalang who continues burn anyone SMB throws at him in the post. But the Beermen will always have their talent. That in itself gives them at least a chance. Now, they’ve sprinkled in movement that’s opened things up for the entire team. Junemar in the post. Their shooters in the wing. That little wrinkle makes their offense flow again. That movement may just be the ultimate counter that proves to be too much to handle for any team, even a Magnolia team that thrives in it.