Third time’s the charm as the San Miguel Beermen finally earned a victory over the Meralco Bolts, 102-86. They may have lost their first two meetings, but they got the win when it mattered most, punching their way to the last spot in the Governors’ Cup semifinals.
There was a bit of deja vu to start of. SMB had a strong opening quarter strong first quarter thanks in no small part to Arizona Reid and Arwind Santos. Reid replicated his good start in game one with nine points, able to get looks closer to the basket. Meanwhile, Santos shot lights out from deep, going 3/3 from distance. Due to those two and SMB’s defense, they took a 30-18 lead. Meralco battled back in the second however. A more aggressive attack helped them as they repeatedly went to the rim and on the offensive glass. Pesky hands also led to easy turnover points. It helped that SMB’s offense stagnated as they relied a bit too much on isolations to score. Meralco cut it down the lead down to two multiple times before SMB regained their composure and pulled away a bit more for a seven-point halftime lead, 49-42.
The beginning of the third quarter was a little more forgiving for SMB as they reestablished a double-digit lead behind the strong play of June Mar Fajardo. Things changed about halfway through the quarter as the offense stagnated, the defense loosened, and turnovers piled up. Meralco came as close as one due to a mini Andre Emmett explosion where he hit three straight buckets in a little over 60 seconds. With their lead cut all the way to two, SMB looked like they were in for another brutal finish. Well, they proved everybody with a 12-4 blast in the first three minutes, a run that practically sealed the game. Marcio Lassiter, who barely scored in the first three quarters, hit a technical freethrow and two back-to-back booming triples. Meralco had one last gasp as they cut the lead back down to seven but Reid and Fajardo were just too much to handle as SMB finally pulled away for good. With that, SMB got a well-deserved win and get to advance.
By The Numbers
SMB’s defense was the focal point of this game. Meralco couldn’t have a hot scoring night two games in a row, evidenced by Jared Dillinger and Kelly Nabong‘s combined 10 points after 39 in the first game. It definitely helped that SMB’s effort on defense was visibly better, particularly in the paint. They forced Meralco into A LOT of midrange shots; and even if they made a lot of them, SMB surely preferred that than makes right at the rim. They literally formed a wall (cue Stan Van Gundy) in the paint every time someone dared penetrate. Even in the middle quarters with the lead dwindling, Meralco couldn’t find a consistent way to break through that wall. That’s the attitude they should take going forward. They should be appalled that opponents would even try to score inside. Secondly, credit has to go to Santos and Ronald Tubid for the job they did on stopping Emmett. Except for that third quarter stretch, Santos was able to use his length to great advantage in challenging his shots. He did get five fouls thanks to his efforts. Luckily, Tubid had no trouble picking up where his teammates left off. Heck, he did an even better job as he aggressively denied Emmett the ball and literally had his hand on his face on every shot. With him psyching out their import, Meralco were left with almost zero offense aside from Gary David. As they so gravely witnessed, that simply isn’t enough for this SMB squad.
Offensively, SMB was still as efficient. The decrease in their three-point attempts was quite noticeable. This isn’t a bad thing considering they still shot a good percentage and made just enough to help them hunt for shots inside the arc, particularly at the rim, evidenced by their edge in points in the paint. That’s something that should be stressed a bit more since they’re more than capable of outscoring opponents in that area and still get to the line. Although they were a bit behind in terms of offensive rebounding (9-12, 6-11 second chance points), they still won the overall battle and controlled the glass. The only bad thing about their offense was the absurd number of turnovers they had; a staggering 20 that Meralco converted to 21 points. Luckily, they canceled that out by forcing 18 errors and getting 23 points off that. It was definitely a weird night since these are the top two teams in terms of taking care of the ball. For SMB, a big part of that was Reid’s nine turnovers (just 3.6 per game in the elimination round).
Speaking of Reid, it seems he’s back to his old self. He led SMB with 29 points on 57.8 TS%, grabbed 11 boards, and dished six dimes. Defensively, he kept the free safety defense to a minimum (if you don’t know what free safety is, think Kobe Bryant) and challenged shots. His jumper was still off but he got to the rim a lot more. His pass selection could’ve been better as a lot of them were cringe-worthy, high-risk crosscourt passes that were hardly on point. Overall though, he redeemed himself from that game one debacle. He did have his left hamstring/groin checked when he subbed out in the fourth. He was also holding on to it in the previous game. It might be why he looked awkward at times when moving, especially on defense. Hopefully, it’s a minor issue and won’t hinder him much going forward.
June Mar Fajardo was his usual dominant self: 22 points on 81.4 TS%, 16 boards, a steal, and two big blocks. He didn’t get the ball as much in the post thanks to Meralco’s fronting defense, but his teammates’ entry passes were on the money. He also helped them with great seals that left defenders helpless once he caught the rock. His efficiency has been off the charts for a number option (17/21 FGs, 18/23 FTs in 2 games). He supplemented his offensive game by cleaning up the glass a bit more and being the defensive anchor SMB needs. With SMB’s ticket to the finals and this good performance, he may have just cemented his case for his third BPC award and second MVP plum (*knock on wood*). As a side note, his aura has noticeably changed the past few weeks. He seems a lot more confident and vocal (cameras caught him instructing Chris Ross, Santos, and Lassiter in separate occasions). Whatever he’s been doing, it’s certainly working and SMB has reaped the benefits.
Arwind Santos had his best game of the conference: 15 points (all in the first half) on 84.5 TS% to go along with six boards, two assists, and a steal. This is the kind of efficient play SMB has sorely missed from him ever since the Philippine Cup. As mentioned earlier, he picked his spots well and was terrific defensively as a rim protector AND import defender. Even when he sat out with five fouls in the last period, he did his share by leading the bench celebration (as one tweet noted, no one towel-waves quite like him). SMB should pray that this is a sign of good things to come.
- SMB noticeably ran a lot more pick and roll and horns sets compared to game one, partly due to the aforementioned fronting defense on Fajardo. This was also a great help to Reid who had an easier time getting buckets. SMB should look to involve him in these kinds of sets a lot more, especially when he’s at the four. It’s hard to guard especially with corner specialists Lassiter and Tubid in there.
- Alex Cabagnot has been the missing link. In two games, he’s only 2/12 from the field including 0/7 from three. He did have five assists in this one but his poor decision-making in the third quarter almost cost them the game. One of the things that makes SMB so dangerous is the two-headed PG monster of him and Chris Ross. Not only are they capable of being starters and/or back-ups, they are also dangerous together on the court.
SMB is probably a bit thankful for Meralco. They’re always a tough cover and they certainly challenged SMB and gave them a scare. This will only toughen them up and make them sharper for the next round. Looking ahead, it looks like PBA fans are in for a treat as they face the Rain Or Shine Elasto Painters in a best-of-five. Not only are the match-ups interesting but so are the narratives. SMB can’t forget that in last season’s Philippine Cup semifinal, they lost 4-1 to ROS. Fajardo gets another crack at Extra Rice Inc. supplemented by a much improved Raymond Almazan. And probably the biggest story going into the series: Reid versus Yeng Guiao and his former team. They’re probably not done “talking” to each other. Overall, it was a great win with an exciting series to look forward to. SMB certainly reminded everyone why they should #FearTheBeer
Featured Image Credit: Paul Ryan Tan, Sports5