It’s the hottest team in the league versus arguably the grittiest one as TNT KaTropa face off against the San Miguel Beermen in what should be a very explosive matchup. SMB has always been the bane of TNT’s championship hopes in the Leo Austria era. Will that change this time? Or will San Miguel prove to be the more resilient team?
Their semifinal against the Rain Or Shine Elastopainters could probably be described as a microcosm of their entire conference thus far. They had to battle back from big double-digit deficits in literally every game. Big individual performances from several players including Chris Ross would help them break through in four games.
What they can take advantage of
A big reason why Barangay Ginebra struggled in their semifinal against TNT was the lack of scoring from their big men. They just weren’t enough of a threat to force Terrence Jones to focus on defending them. That enabled him to pace himself and save his energy when needed on offense and at the end of games. It’ll be a different matter entirely for San Miguel seeing as their frontcourt is loaded with scorers. Whether it’s dealing with June Mar Fajardo and Christian Standhardinger in the post or Chris McCullough on the perimeter, his defense will be challenged and he’ll need to expend energy on that end. If not, one of those three can go to town offensively.
For once, San Miguel will have the deeper bench and that could prove to be a big enough advantage. For all the criticism against Leo Austria’s short rotations, not a lot of people have brought up how TNT barely goes 8-9 deep and relies HEAVILY on their starters producing. Though Austria usually runs the same number of guys, he will have more “magic bunot” options compared to Bong Ravena and that could be a factor. This is why it’s important that Terrence Romeo and the aforementioned Standhardinger be locked in from the get-go as they have been major reasons why the Beermen’s “bench mob” has been the most formidable it’s been since arguably 2015. There have been more than a couple of games where they’ve taken or extended leads with their play. With those two providing steady offense, it enables the other three on the floor to focus on just providing energy, hustle, and defense.
What to guard against
The most important thing to remember for the Beermen is not to overreact on Jones. Ginebra and the Alaska Aces showed that good single coverage on Jones will be enough for TNT’s offense to stall and bog down. The worst thing they can do is send unnecessary double teams which is what he wants so he can locate the open shooter or baseline cutter. They’ll also have to be careful when he calls for a 4-5 pick and roll since that’s his go-to “isolation” move. Since his first step isn’t very explosive, he needs his defender to get out of position to blow by him. With his so-so ability to score against contact and lack of a post-game, forcing him to go one-on-one is San Miguel’s best bet. Luckily, they have more than a few defenders to throw at him, including the aforementioned trio of their frontcourt. Even guys like Arwind Santos and Kelly Nabong could probably cover, especially if they want to get under his skin and frustrate him.
In connection to defending Jones, staying home on TNT’s shooters is just as crucial. This probably involves a lot more focus and discipline for every individual player. As alluded to earlier, the KaTropa’s gameplan revolves around Jones and Jayson Castro waiting for doubles to kick out to open teammates. As a defense, San Miguel has a bad habit of over helping and losing their man on the perimeter, as evidenced in their semis against Rain Or Shine when they would hit three after three just because a Beerman’s head was turned or someone gambled. That’s why it’s more on discipline and fighting their own tendencies. Their defensive awareness has to be there at all times.
Matchups to watch
Chris McCullough vs. Terrence Jones
A titanic matchup between arguably the two most talented imports this conference (maybe ever?). They are also two former first-round picks in the NBA. Jones definitely has the edge in defense, experience and chemistry having been with the team from the start. But McCullough is no slouch himself, slowly showing more and more aspects to his game, going from just a stretch four to a do-it-all forward in a few weeks. They might not be matched up from the start but I think the series ultimately hinges on them having to stop each other.
Chris Ross vs. Jayson Castro
Once again, it’s Ross’ defense versus Castro’s offense. He’s struggled guarding him as he’s gotten older but we know that Playoff/Finals Ross is a different beast altogether. If he can consistently neutralize Castro’s pick-and-roll game, that would be huge for his team. Maybe even a couple of three-point explosions here and there.
Terrence Romeo vs. Brian Heruela
Romeo’s steady play since coming back from injury hasn’t been talked about enough. It’s a big reason why the bench works so well. He’s even played his way into finishing lineups in a few games over Alex Cabagnot. That’s how much he’s improved and arguably completed his transition into more of a point guard. But his likely matchup in Heruela will definitely challenge him. He has to keep his cool as Heruela is a very good physical, pesky defender. He did learn from the best after all. Romeo may say it’s just a normal series but winning one over his former team would probably be a sweet thought.
Why you should believe in the San Miguel Beermen
They scratched and clawed their way to the finals. After that horrid 2-5 start, they could’ve easily mailed it in and chalked up a disappointing conference to fatigue and championship hangover, and most fans would have probably understood. But they persevered and fought back. The inclusion of Chris McCullough provided a different energy. Thanks to that, they climbed their way into the playoffs, bucked a twice-to-win disadvantage and battled huge deficits in literally every game in the semis. It may seem cliche but they’ve gone through everything as a team and peaking at the right time. They’re hungrier now and everyone has something to prove. TNT hasn’t really faced much of a challenge on their way to the finals and that could be a factor in SMB’s favor. They’re peaking at just the right time and are primed to go for a second championship and keep their grand slam hopes alive.