The San Miguel Beermen have two dirty little secrets as of this writing.

The first is rather evident. It’s something we’ve been watching for an entire conference now, but has escaped most people’s eyes because SMB. The other, on the other hand, isn’t as evident. However, it’s been looming for quite some time now, arguably ever since San Miguel lost versus Ginebra during the 2018 Commissioner’s Cup.  No matter how good your core is, this secret is an inevitable any dynasty has to face eventually.

After a dominant bounce back Game 2 win versus the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok, it felt like SMB would cruise to their fifth straight Philippine Cup championship once again. It would have been deja vu again, as last year in the 2018 Philippine Cup, SMB won four straight games after losing Game 1 versus this same Magnolia team. They’ve been the league’s inevitable for most of this decade. Achieving glory in dominant fashion seemed to be set in stone ever since they rolled past the first seed Phoenix Pulse Fuel Masters in the Semifinals.

Except, we received anything but that. To the surprise of many, the Beermen failed to flip the switch at any point during Game 3 as the Hotshots held on to win 86-82. In close losses such as that, the tendency is to hold on to certain moments, or plays where the scales may have tipped towards the victor’s way. This time around, not one moment could capture how the Beermen lost. Instead, it was a glaring stat which told the story of their struggles all game long.

When Christian Standhardinger was drafted during the 2017 PBA Draft, many thought it was unfair. You’re pairing up a Gilas Pilipinas caliber big with the country’s best center in Junemar Fajardo. Add Arwind Santos into the fray and you have a front court that looks terrifying.

For the most part, that has been true. Despite Standhardinger bringing his brand of unorthodox physical play, Junemar and Arwind have continued to dominate in their own special ways. Versus TNT in the Quarterfinals, Standhardinger stamped his class with a masterful do-or-die Game 3. Against Phoenix, Arwind showed Calvin Abueva and Phoenix’s bruisers he could outwit them in trash talk and physical play. Against everyone else, Junemar has showed the MVP is still his to lose.

It’s easy to believe the trio is the closest we’ve seen to a perfect front court. There are reasons to embrace that, but they do have one glaring weakness: rebounding.

For all their size and heft down low, the Beermen have been poor at crashing the boards all season long. During the regular season, they ranked as the second worst rebounding team (just ahead of Columbian Dyip), averaging 45.9 rebounds per game. On the offensive glass, they ranked dead last with 11.3 offensive rebounds per game.

Confident Beermen fans can chalk it up to the team simply not missing shots. It isn’t the craziest thing to say, as they did average 14 made threes per game in the regular season, far and away best in the league. However, the stat still meant something. We saw glimpses of it versus Phoenix. Now versus Magnolia, we’re being witness to a complete showcase of one of San Miguel’s biggest chink’s in its armor.

If we look at this from a purely stats-based perspective, we should have seen this coming. While San Miguel ranked among the worst in rebounding, Magnolia was second best in terms of total rebounds (tops in terms of offensive boards). Despite these numbers, we still held on to this image of Junemar Fajardo running circles against Ian Sangalang just like last year’s Finals and Christian Standhardinger running over the human beanpole that’s Rafi Reavis. Stats can only tell so much. Many believed that the title was for the Beermen’s to lose once more, with its front line romping over Magnolia’s.

Come Game 3, the statistics came to life. Magnolia completely crushed San Miguel on the boards. They grabbed 71 rebounds (28 offensive rebounds) versus San Miguel’s 46 (14 offensive rebounds). Could confident Beermen fans chalk this up to the team not missing shots? Sadly they couldn’t, as SMB made just 10 out of their 43 attempts from three. What went wrong then?

If Magnolia wanted to have a shot at winning this series, they couldn’t rely on out talenting San Miguel. No one in the league — save maybe for the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel — can out talent the Beermen. If they wanted a shot, they’d have to beat San Miguel with effort.

Rafi Reavis and Ian Sangalang have been the poster boys of this movement for Magnolia. They both grabbed 15 rebounds in Game 3 against the taller and heftier front line of the Beermen. In the play below, Rafi shows excellent activity for the board, then passes it to Ian who tries to score over Arwind and Marcio. He ultimately gets blocked by Junemar, but he showcases excellent motor during the entire play nonetheless. Magnolia didn’t get the two points, but at the very least, they added more fuel to their energy tank thanks to the effort of their bigs:

The added fuel did not come for naught. For the entire game, Sangalang and Reavis continued to crash the boards with absolute gusto, as if they weren’t informed the bigs they were up against were supposed to run over them. Most deserving of credit, in particular, is Reavis, the 41-year-old Magnolia legend who’s defied the orders of Father Time all playoffs long.

It’s been Reavis all season long who’s done a great job of exposing San Miguel’s weakness in crashing the boards. Most questionable has been San Miguel’s ability to box out for rebounds, instead relying on their leaping ability to grab boards. Rafi’s old school. If you don’t box him out, he will find ways to grab the board for the putback:

Even when San Miguel thinks they’ve gained positioning, Reavis never gives up on the play. He’s 41, but his conditioning and agility are incredible. Blend this in with smarts gained from a 17-year career in the PBA and he’s able to come up with gems like these:

To the Beermen’s credit, their perceived lack of interest in boxing out isn’t just because they don’t care. It’s also schematic, as the match-up zone they’ve been employing for most of the series has caused their opportunities at rebounds to drop. It’s a natural result of employing a zone. You’re expected to stay only at particular spots. You’re not set on one player who will oftentimes be the main man you’re expected to box out for boards.

The solution should be simple then. Scrap the match-up zone. In the first place, it hasn’t been that effective anyway since Magnolia’s done a splendid job of getting second-chance opportunities to offset their sub-par percentages from the field. There are risks to playing man to man — expect Magnolia to attack the slow-footed Junemar Fajardo in pick and rolls — but at this point, you’d take that rather than allow Magnolia to feast on rebounds. Offensive rebounds don’t just add to one’s stat. They also increase a team’s energy, something you want to reduce as much as possible in Magnolia’s tank.

Another simple addition to the solution above: Just play with more heart! Go jump! Grab for rebounds! In a hashtag, really, #PUSO! Out talenting Magnolia won’t be enough. If San Miguel is able to mix in their natural gifts with effort, then bouncing back from this 2-1 deficit should be a breeze.

Yet, it must be said that treating playing with more heart as a potential solution means you’re also asking the following questions:

  1. Do the San Miguel Beermen just not care anymore?
  2. Does SMB not know that doing the little things is needed to win their fifth straight championship?

Let’s quickly answer both.

  1. Of course, they care! To even insult a championship team’s interest level in the Finals is a slap to their faces. Slap their face and I assure you Chris Ross will slap back even HARDER.
  2. PREPOSTEROUS. Of course, they know that! You don’t win six rings with this core by not knowing that.

So the Beermen care. They know they needed to do certain tasks in order to win championships. So what gives? Why’s SMB struggling to put away a team that isn’t even close to their level of talent?

This then brings us to SMB’s second dirty little secret, one that hasn’t been as evident, but has been looming for a while now.

Junemar Fajardo. Marcio Lassiter. Chris Ross. Alex Cabagnot. Arwind Santos. That group will forever go down as one of the best starting fives in league history. There is zero doubt about that. We continue to embrace them as such and deservingly so. But let’s take a look at them from a different light:

Junemar Fajardo (29 years old). Marcio Lassiter (31 years old). Chris Ross (34 years old). Alex Cabagnot (36 years old). Arwind Santos (37 years old). The harsh reality this group will have to face sooner or later: dynasties don’t last forever. They end one way or another, with one culprit being Father Time.

During the latter part of the fourth quarter, the entire Death Five looked gassed. Junemar did not bother fighting through screens anymore. Arwind was hesitant at contesting shots while Reavis continued to outplay him. Alex continued to struggle at defending the perimeter. Chris’ effort could only do so much. Marcio, by all accounts, looked completely lost.

This was no longer just a matter of age catching up to the Beermen. Another important factor is the amount of miles accumulated over the course of this five-year run. In 13 total conferences since 2015, they’ve made it to the Finals eight times. Aside from just playing in the PBA, all members of the Death Five save for Chris Ross have played extra duty with the National Team. The Beermen are tired, both physically and mentally. Those missed box-outs and failed defensive rotations aren’t a testament of their lack of effort. It’s a multitude of factors that have caused them to play as such.

With all things considered, the Beermen can still rise from this 2-1 deficit and win three out of the maximum four remaining games. This series is far from over. A couple of adjustments here and there as well as their shots falling can tip the scales their way in an instant. They continue to be inevitable. They are still, by all accounts, the San Miguel Beermen.

Yet, even if they push through and win their fifth straight Philippine Cup championship, nothing is assured moving forward. The miles will only accumulate. Rest will only be so limited as the country inches closer to the World Cup in August. These problems may be looming, but they are still big problems. The Beermen have to at least be aware of them, especially since they aren’t just chasing single championships anymore. They want a Grand Slam, something they’ve been aiming for ever since 2015. It has to start with the little things if you want to be able to aim for the big ones.