Before the game, the Beermen were honored with a short ring ceremony for their 2013-2014 Philippine Cup championship. It was also nice to see former Beermen receive their rings as well. It was definitely a nice touch that the PBA added for this season and something to look forward to.
On to the game.
The final score undermines what was a great challenge put up by the Bolts. With some new pieces in their lineup, they had a very good start. They were unfazed and played an extremely physical game. In fact, they controlled much of the first three quarters. Despite that, the Beermen found a way to hold on thanks to their improved depth. An opportunity finally presented itself in the third quarter when Chris Newsome had to be taken out of the game due to injury and his team succumbed to too many foul calls. Momentum swung all the way to San Miguel’s favor as they built a double-digit lead. Meralco had one last run in them to cut the lead down to seven, led by veteran Jimmy Alapag. But the Beermen were just too much as Alex Cabagnot and Arwind Santos sealed the game.
A Tale of Two Halves
If you only watched the first half, you would be surprised to see how San Miguel not only outshot Meralco, but also outrebounded them. At the start, Meralco had the perfect gameplan. To counter June Mar Fajardo‘s distinct size advantage, they used their speed by pushing the pace on every missed shot. They also bodied him up to force him out of the paint in both halfcourt sets and rebounding opportunities. They also challenged his defense by attacking the rim relentlessly. That worked for a stretch since San Miguel couldn’t really play inside-out since Fajardo was forced to catch the ball near the three-point line almost every time. They had to resort to a lot of contested jumpers to try and open up the paint. As a result, Meralco held a distinct advantages in rebounding, second chance opportunities, fastbreak points, and points in the paint. They also shot close to 50% while holding the Beermen to a below 40%. San Miguel was pretty lucky to have a late surge to tie the ballgame.
In the second half, the Beermen did a complete 180 to turn the game in their favor. For one thing, they simply rebounded better. They just matched Meralco’s activity on the glass and took advantage of multiple guys having to box out Fajardo. That freed up Arwind Santos (9 rebounds, 14.9 TRB%), Ronald Tubid (6 rebounds, 21.4 TRB%), and Jay-R Reyes (4 rebounds in 8 minutes, 25.5 TRB%) who slithered into the paint to clean up the glass. That resulted in a big 50-43 rebounding edge. Secondly, they showed the same versatile and efficient offense. With their halfcourt sets stymied by Meralco’s defense, they didn’t hesitate to run as well. They even held a slight 19-17 edge in transition points. More importantly, they were more patient in running their offense. They generated more shot attempts (86-81), more trips to the line (25-18), hit more threes (9-4) and moved the ball extremely well (23 assists on 37 makes, 62.2 AST%).
For the second straight game, the San Miguel bench had major contributions. They sparked the team during the second quarter when Meralco threatened to blow the game wide open. Chris Ross (11 points, 2 3PTM, 4 assists), Ryan Arana (7 points, 4 boards, 3 assists), and Gabby Espinas (6 points) once again provided the energy. They really remind me of that one year when the Los Angeles Lakers had a bench mob that changed the pace of the game every time they stepped on the court from a deliberate, halfcourt court-oriented starting lineup to a more manic, gritty second unit. They’re looking like the perfect complement to Marcio Lassiter (12 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists) who is currently acting as a super sub of sorts. As mentioned, Jay-R Reyes also provided quality minutes not only as Fajardo’s backup but as a frontcourt partner as well. That is a frontline that is definitely worth using a bit more. Yancy De Ocampo had his moments but his lack of defense, even at 6-9 is a bit concerning. Overall, their improved depth is nice to see after relying so much on their starters last season.
Arwind Santos received Best Player of the Game honors with 16 points, nine rebounds, and a block. He had a pretty poor start, emphasized by ending up on the wrong end of a potential play of the year when rookie Chris Newsome posterized him with a vicious slam in the third quarter. But that seemed to wake him up as he brushed it off and turned in a fine performance afterwards. He hit two quick fadeaway jumpers, a triple, and the dagger in the fourth quarter. He also hustled hard on the boards with all his offensive boards coming after Newsome’s highlight. He didn’t shoot particularly well (6/16 FGs, 1/6 from deep) but his effort and hustle were great. It’s something I come to expect with his role as a 3&D stretch four.
Alex Cabagnot was also a “victim” of Newsome in the first half. He didn’t find himself in a poster but struggled mightily against his defense. Newsome’s combination of speed, strength, and length really bothered him. He forced up a lot of tough jumpers and couldn’t really set up the offense properly. Luckily, his backups in Ross and Brian Heruela covered for him well until he returned in the second half. And he returned with a vengeance. He ended up with a team-leading 18 points on a hyper-efficient 61.5 TS%. He also added 3 rebounds and 3 assists. He also looked extremely comfortable playing the two position next to either Ross or Heruela. His score-first mentality really helps in that regard.
Night and Day
After a dominant performance against GlobalPort, June Mar Fajardo showed how his performance could fluctuate this season. He and San Miguel’s trainers mentioned how the pain from his still recurring plantar fascitiis comes and goes. It looked like the pain showed in this game. Against GlobalPort, he looked extremely spry, especially defensively. Against the Bolts, he looked pretty sluggish, always a step too slow to cover the paint and allowed a few too many easy layups. That’s not to say he did bad. He still registered a “quiet” 14 points, 13 boards, and 3 assists. That’s the scary part since he can still put up great numbers despite being 75-80%. It’s pretty evident in two games however that he can’t really back his man down or hold a deep seal for long, especially against physical defenders. That’s probably why he has been taking a few more jumpers than usual. He’ll have to depend on that as he continues to work his way into better shape. Luckily, he has a slew of capable teammates to cover for him.
In two games, San Miguel has shown the difference good coaching, chemistry, and championship experience can make. Much like their first game, they didn’t look fazed even with Meralco’s furious runs and physicality. They just kept plugging away and plugging away until an opportunity to take the lead presented itself. Offense will look to be a bit of a problem with some key players still getting themselves into shape but their defense and improved bench depth should keep them afloat.