San Miguel Beermen. They weren’t supposed to be the ones coming back from a gazillion points down. They were supposed to be the ones choking away big leads. They were supposed to be the ones that just give up when faced with a seemingly insurmountable lead, not continue on with poise and composure. And yet, here they are. Down by as much as 24 points in the first half, SMB had the last laugh behind a spirited second half to win 101-96 against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. They go up 1-0 in this best-of-five semifinals with a lot of momentum and a bit of a mental edge so to speak.
I must admit, I almost lost faith at the start of the match. Who wouldn’t when one of the league’s best two-way teams gave up 34 points and scored just 19 in one quarter. SMB looked like a bunch of zombies as they were helpless in the face of a furious transition attack from the Elasto Painters. They weren’t shabby in the halfcourt either thanks to Wendell McKines and Paul Lee, who outscored the whole San Miguel team 21-19. McKines was unstoppable in the paint with 14 and 8 while Lee toyed with his defenders for seven quick points off the bench. It didn’t help matters that SMB’s biggest advantage in June Mar Fajardo had to sit with two fouls at the halfway mark. Even backup Gabby Espinas was hit with two quick ones as well. It was more of the same in the second quarter: stagnant offense and a defense that could not stop ROS from bombing away from deep nor deter them from penetrating. Even Beau Belga‘s brief exit due to a twisted ankle didn’t deter them. SMB had to rely on Fajardo (who picked up his third foul along the way) and Marcio Lassiter to keep themselves afloat. Thanks to them, they managed a mini-run in the final two minutes of the period as they took advantage of some cold shooting and transition opportunities to bring the it down to a 46-60 deficit at the half. It was still a big margin but was a lot more manageable.
The third quarter was where the magic happened. Banking on the momentum they piled on earlier, SMB got to as close as seven before coach Yeng Guiao had to call a quick timeout. A missed defensive rotation and a lazy inbounds pass later, SMB found themselves down by double digits yet again. It seemed as though they were their own enemy as they kept cutting it down to single digits only to shoot themselves in the foot with unforced errors. At 74-60 though, coach Leo Austria had a trump card of his own as he suddenly pulled out a barely-used zone defense to try to slow them down. It worked to great effect as ROS looked stumped and couldn’t adjust fast enough. SMB finally took advantage with a blistering 14-0 run to tie the game at 74-all. Alex Cabagnot picked the best time to explode as he hit two big threes to end the quarter in his team’s favor with a 34-19 beating. He also gave SMB their first lead of the game 80-79. Credit has to be given to SMB’s bench as well. They were big in the closing minutes of the third and managed to hold the fort at the start of the fourth quarter. With ROS’ big guns back in, SMB’s starters didn’t give in and kept them at bay. ROS looked to have one last gasp as they tied it up 95-all, but six straight points by the Beermen and a clutch block by Fajardo on Lee’s three sealed and completed the comeback.
By The Numbers
How did SMB pull off an NSD game? It was all about their defense, specifically the zone they deployed in the final 18 minutes or so of the game. For a coach like Austria, who’s had his team play man-to-man for practically 99% of their possessions this season, pulling out a zone defense in the middle of a crucial stretch was a brilliant move. It’s not something well scouted and served to put ROS in disarray. Like I mentioned, they couldn’t adjust fast enough. Much of their possessions involved swinging the ball around aimlessly. They couldn’t get clean looks for McKines inside and relied on a ton of three-point attempts to try to break it. It also helped that ROS couldn’t adjust fast enough in the third quarter with just Jeff Chan as their shooter and no player at the free throw line area to try to attack the center of the zone. You just have to look at the percentages to see how well of a defensive job SMB did in the second half. ROS only shot 37.4% from the field and 24.4% from deep despite that extremely hot start. SMB also forced them to take 45 (!!!) attempts from behind the arc. I’d say it was a job well done considering that is half of their total attempts (91 FGA’s).
Speaking of McKines, he was a terror to defend. 33 points and 16 rebounds is no joke. The Beermen just didn’t have a single guy that could defend him one-on-one or keep him off the glass. Not Arizona Reid, not Arwind Santos, not Espinas, and not Fajardo. None of them have the necessary combination of speed and strength to handle him. That’s where the zone also helped. SMB didn’t stop him completely but definitely slowed him down with multiple defenders thrown at him and entry passes made difficult. It also helped curb his rebounding. He had eight in the first quarter but “only” totalled eight in the last three combined. Gang rebounding was certainly the answer as SMB put more bodies on the glass instead of just relying on Fajardo to do it. They still lost the rebounding battle 52-51 but you have to consider that ROS had a 33-18 edge at halftime. The second half was simply a dominant display on that end.
Offensively, SMB did just enough to bring up their percentages to more respectable levels. They shot better from the field with fewer attempts (36/82, 43.9%) as well as from deep (11/30, 30%). They also got to the line at a better rate. Early on, their turnovers and stagnant offense helped fuel ROS’ transition attack. They managed to correct those two as the game wore on with 23 assists against just 10 turnovers.
I think it’s pretty clear that the starters deserve a ton of credit. Just look at the combined production: 92 of their 101 points, 47 of their 51 boards, and 20 of their 23 assists. At the forefront of this attack was June Mar Fajardo with 20 and 10. In the same way that SMB had no answer for McKines, ROS didn’t have one for the Kraken either. Two games against the Meralco Bolts’ frontline and all his past battles with Rain or Shine certainly served him well. It didn’t matter to him who was guarding, he just forced and bullied his way to the rim. He also did a great job playing with foul trouble, something that almost always meant he would be so much less aggressive. This wasn’t the case at all. It showed his continued maturity. You know he’s on kill mode when he had no problems shoving Belga out of the way on a boxout.
He wasn’t alone as Marcio Lassiter, no question SMB’s second-best local this conference, stepped up to the plate with 22 points on 69.8 TS%, including four triples. He also added seven rebounds and a block for good measure. There’s a reason why he’s in the top 10 for the BPC race. Arwind Santos played his best game of the conference and what a time for it to come. 12 points, 12 boards, 2 steals, and 2 blocks were his final tally. He didn’t shoot well but his effort and hustle on both ends was a welcome development after his sub par elimination round. He was everywhere, on the glass, on the break, and on defense. Suffice to say, he wasn’t afraid of doing the dirty work. He mentioned how he only just recovered from an ailing injury and it definitely showed.
Speaking of injuries, I’m more and more convinced that Arizona Reid has some serious hamstring issues. He was still a step slow on defense plus his jumpers are usually short, a sign that his legs are not at full strength. I also noticed how he prefers backing down his defender from the arc instead of just taking him off the dribble. Nevertheless, he continued to play on and put up another good performance. It’s hard to argue with a near triple-double of 22-13-8. He might’ve heard me harp on his turnover issues as well. 14 in two games against Meralco and ZERO in this one. His shooting wasn’t great (44.8 TS%) but he got better looks by going at the rim a bit more. Again, he might be better served by being put in more pick and roll situations instead of straight up isolation plays. It would also put less toll on his body.
Of course, the star of the night was none other than Alex Cabagnot, who earned Best Player of the Game honors with good reason. After a disastrous third quarter in their do-or-die game in the quarterfinals, he definitely picked the perfect period to redeem himself. He scored 10 of his 15 second half points in the third quarter alone, including back-to-back triples to take the lead. The Crunchman lived up to his moniker as he also did a masterful job of running the offense. He added five rebounds and eight dimes along with no turnovers. That dynamic offensive game is what SMB needs to get through, especially if Chris Ross continues to be hampered by whatever ailment he was facing.
SMB’s bench only scored nine points, but they didn’t really need much with the starters playing so well. Instead, they focused on the little things and the dirty work. Ronald Tubid, despite being put in the blender by Lee early, was able to get into McKines’ head a bit in the critical third period. It led to him retaliating with a punch to the back of the head and a flagrant foul penalty one. That certainly helped SMB will the momentum already on their side. Gabby Espinas bucked early foul trouble to put his mark defensively. He only had two points and two boards but was the focal point of the second unit’s defense, barking out coverages in their zone that helped them hold the fort while the starters rested. Chris Lutz, the other missing link, also made a good account of himself. He only scored two points and missed all of his four shots but his passing and defense was certainly welcome in his 10 minutes of action.
It was a disgusting start but SMB just held on. Normally, they’d be the ones blowing huge leads or giving up on big deficits, but that wasn’t them today. They played with composure and just slowly chipped at the margin until they could finally overtake. It was a refreshing display of patience. A great win that certainly puts more pressure on Rain or Shine. Hopefully, this gives them more confidence in the long run.
Featured Image Credit: Paul Ryan Tan, Sports5