The second of the semifinals series is a battle between two lower-seeded teams who defied the odds to make it to this round. And they should be no stranger to each other as they have battled multiple times over the past few years in the playoffs. Let’s first take a look at their journey to get here, which has a few similarities.
Rain Or Shine didn’t have the smoothest of starts as they opened their campaign with back-to-back losses before a rout of Barangay Ginebra gave them their first win. They then pretty much traded wins and losses the rest of the way to end with a ho-hum 5-6 record. They’ve had their fair share of injuries to key players: Maverick Ahanmisi has been out for about three months and counting, James Yap only played five elimination games due to a groin injury and even import Denzel Bowles had to leave in the middle of a game and be replaced. These didn’t stop them from upstaging the rise of the Blackwater Elite in three games in the quarterfinals.
If San Miguel’s Philippine Cup start was rocky, then their early performance this conference was downright turbulent. They clearly didn’t have enough time to recover and it showed when they lost 3 of their first 4 games, including two huge blowouts. Even the presence of the returning Charles Rhodes wasn’t enough to lift them. A two-point overtime loss to the lowly Columbian Dyip was probably the last straw as they replaced Rhodes with a younger Chris McCullough. He was just what they needed as his energy, and the return of Terrence Romeo, helped them to a 3-game winning streak to secure a spot in the playoffs. A twice-to-beat disadvantage didn’t deter them as they knocked off the rising Northport Batangpier in two tough games.
Eliminations Matchup: SMB 89-87
Their elimination round matchup occurred just two weeks ago on July 13 in an out of town game. As expected, both teams struggled playing in an unfamiliar gym as the Elastopainters’ defense held up for much of the game until McCullough and June Mar Fajardo made several plays in the clutch to steal the win.
What to Watch Out For
As expected, the Fajardo-Belga matchup will be crucial. Fajardo must be breathing a sigh of relief knowing he doesn’t have to go up against Prince Ibeh again anytime soon. He struggled mightily totaling just 20 points in two games as compared to the 20+ he scored in the last three games of the elims. But against a much smaller lineup of Beau Belga, Jewel Ponferada and Norbert Torres, he should feast. No disrespect to those three, but they don’t really have the length necessary to really bother Fajardo. Luckily, they have the outside shooting to possibly punish him on the other end and get him out of the paint.
For Rain Or Shine, the young guns in Rey Nambatac and Javee Mocon will be their biggest weapons. Both have been sophomore and rookie revelations respectively, outdoing themselves in almost every game they play. They’ve also proven themselves as clutch performances, with several late game baskets in the quarterfinals. It’ll be on them to take their next games even farther to beat out their more experienced counterparts. Luckily, youth and strength are on their side. With Chris Ross likely to cover Nambatac, Mocon will be key as San Miguel doesn’t really have a player that can cover him, even with Marcio Lassiter in the fold.
Speaking of Lassiter, his MCL injury will be devastating to SMB. Losing their best wing defender, shooter and arguably their best pick-and-roll ballhandler at this time is a huge blow. It will be interesting to see how they adjust and who steps. They will probably look to Von Pessumal to step up once again. Remember, he thrived when Lassiter had to miss time in the Philippine Cup. Matt Ganuelas-Rosser will probably be relied upon for his hustle and defense while they might even brush the dust off Ronald Tubid for spot minutes.
Overall, these are two teams that have gone through a lot of hardship to reach the semis and are seemingly peaking at the right time. And again, there is a lot of familiarity between these two squads. Ultimately, I have the San Miguel Beermen making a return trip to the finals in 4 games primarily due to the combined might of June Mar Fajardo and Chris McCullough. The Elastopainters have tough, experienced players but they don’t really have immediate solutions to shutting both down.