After all the twist and turns, ups and downs and surprise performances, it’s quite ironic that this conference would end with a rematch of last year’s Philippine Cup finals. Both teams bucked slow, rocky starts to reach the playoffs as lower-seeded teams. And both teams proved once again why they won two of the three championships last season.

SHORT SEMIS RECAP

If there was one word to describe San Miguel’s series against the Phoenix Pulse Fuelmasters, it would be “exhausting.” All semis long they were tested both physically and mentally with all the taunting and extra-curriculars. Composure was pretty much the key for the Beermen as they never let it get to them and just focused on playing the actual game instead, which helped them to a 4-1 win. They managed to buch Marcio Lassiter’s injury as well with how Matt Ganuelas-Rosser and Von Pessumal seamlessly stepped into the plate.

WHAT THEY CAN TAKE ADVANTAGE OF

Part of Rain Or Shine’s issues against Magnolia was the inability of their bigs to really score in the post, which really hampered their halfcourt offense once their sets bogged down. For San Miguel, that won’t be much of an issue as June Mar Fajardo and Christian Standhardinger will remain their biggest advantages. We’ve seen how coach Leo Austria managed to use them effectively together and in staggered minutes. Standhardinger in particular just provides them a different look should they need it, with his bulldozer style of play, ability to push the ball and run in transition. They should be able to dominate the Hotshots’ relatively smaller (and slower) frontline.

Magnolia was generally pretty careless with the ball in the semis, something San Miguel can take full advantage of. They’re at the top of the league in terms of fastbreak points but it’s not because they like to play fast but because they have guys like Chris Ross and Ganuelas-Rosser are able to get into passing lanes and force transition opportunities. That was a big reason for needing just five games to put down Phoenix. Even players like Alex Cabagnot and Terrence Romeo, not exactly known for stellar defense, have shown the ability to anticipate and strip possessions. Terrorizing those passing lanes would be huge in the long-run.

WHAT TO GUARD AGAINST

Throughout the quarters and the semis, San Miguel has struggled containing the defensive boards and that probably won’t change much in the finals. The slight difference is that Magnolia has scrappier small guards instead of big wings. That can still pose a lot of problems though especially if they continue to be slow and lackadaisical on those 50/50 balls. There were a lot of instances in the semifinals where they would play great defense only to give Phoenix multiple possessions. They can’t afford the same here esepecially with how relentless the Hotshots can be. It’ll be on every Beermen, from the small guards to their towering frontline to box out.

That peskiness on the perimeter will also come to play on defense, especially in defending Fajardo. TNT and Phoenix provided a bit of a blueprint on how to defend him: double teams from his blindside, cutting off passing angles, zoning the other four players, etc. There’s no reason for Magnolia not to employ much of the same tactics, especially with defense as their calling card. Fajardo will have to watch his turnovers and maybe even attack a little quicker instead of just waiting and surveying the field.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

June Mar Fajardo vs. Ian Sangalang Round 2:

You could say it’s a battle between the two most skilled big men in the league. It’s not a stretch to say much of the series hinges on how this matchup plays out. In fact, Magnolia’s chances were high in last season’s finals when Sangalang managed to match Fajardo’s production until the Kraken said enough is enough and went ham in Game 5 to seal it.

Terrence Romeo vs. Paul Lee:

They probably won’t be guarding each other much but their scoring and ability to heat up quickly will be just as important for both their squads. Lee has been here and done it before. As for Romeo, it’ll be interesting to see how he responds to his first finals in the PBA and a chance at his first championship in ANY level (hard to believe, right?). Against TNT in the quarterfinals, it was noticeable how he was forcing it a bit to start. San Miguel can’t afford him to be the same way here. They’re looking for some big moments from him.

Bench vs. Bench:

This has always been a hot topic with Coach Austria’s tenure. Unlike last season’s finals however, it won’t be such a huge advantage anymore to the Magnolia Hotshots. In these playoffs, he has shown the ability to utilize a deeper rotation very well. He’s had some very timely subs and “magic bunots” as well as 2nd-stringers simply stepping up when needed. Yes, the scoring is largely because of Romeo and Standhardinger but that’s probably what’s helped them the most. They don’t have to worry about setting plays and just have to hit shots and hustle. They just give San Miguel a very different look on the floor. That will be crucial in this series especially if Magnolia is able to slow down the first unit. It’s going to be important for them to provide the energy and dominate the opposing bench.

WHY YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN THE SAN MIGUEL BEERMEN

Four words: Four. Time. Defending. Champions.

It’s such a cliche, but they just know how to win. They’re no strangers to this kind of stage, especially in the Philippine Cup. And more importantly, it wasn’t an easy road. They had a rocky start, they had several injuries and fit concerns. There were also a lot of doubts about the core and their age. They looked like a mess for much of the eliminations but they turned things around. Even the quarters and semis were battles they had to tough out. They probably have to thank TNT and Phoenix for poking and waking up the slumbering giants and preparing them for the final round. They still have some issues but it looks like they’re peaking at just the right time. As long as everyone can stay relatively healthy, they’ll more than likely be five-time defending champions.