It seemed so long ago we were talking about the San Miguel Beermen’s doom. Starting the conference 0-2, they looked primed and ready to repeat their Commissioner’s Cup blunder when they fell right out of the playoff race after a 0-4 start. Arizona Reid, June Mar Fajardo, and Arwind Santos were performing poorly and the team as a whole looked like a sloppy mess. Well, seven straight wins later and SMB find themselves in a familiar place: at the very top of the standings. The offense has been overpowering, the defense suffocating, and team morale at an all time high. They are the hottest team right now, shaping up to be just as dangerous (or arguably more so) than their Philippine Cup form. As a testament to their terrific play, four or five different Beermen were named Best Player of the Game during this streak.

That winning streak might as well climb up to eight as they go up against the worst team in the PBA this season, the Blackwater Elite. Sporting a 1-7 record, they were looking forward to a better run after a 3-8 standing last conference, a big improvement over their winless debut in the Philippine Cup. Unfortunately, that hasn’t really materialized, even with the help of Marcus Douthit and the emergence of rookie point guard Brian Heruela. Based on the Four Factors alone, they’ve been pretty bad. How bad? 12th in ORTG, 11th in DRTG, 11th in eFG%, 3rd in TOV%, 10th in ORB%, 11th in opponent ORB%, and 12th in freethrow rate. It would be extremely deflating if SMB were to lose to this team at this point. They need all the momentum they can get in preparation for not just the playoffs, but their impending showdown with heated rival Alaska Aces on Saturday. Fortunately, they won’t lack for inspiration as they need eight wins to lock up a twice-to-beat-advantage in addition to avenging an upset loss last conference. They will have to continue doing what they’ve done best: tight defense and crisp ball movement on the other end.

In terms of individual match-ups, Brian Heruela and Marcus Cousin (yes, that’s really his name) are the players to watch out for. Heruela is averaging an impressive 10.8 points, 5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists but his shot continues to be suspect (28.6% from deep and just 54.5% from the stripe), something SMB can exploit. Having two veteran point guards in Chris Ross and Alex Cabagnot should be enough to keep him company on both ends. Cousin comes in as a replacement for Douthit. He had a relatively quiet debut (16 points, 9 boards, 5 turnovers in 44 minutes) as he adjusted to the PBA style of play. SMB, particularly Fajardo, has to expect him to bounce back and make sure he doesn’t go all DeMarcus Cousins on them. Lastly, they have a collection of bigs that can pose problems. They aren’t big scoring threats but they can collectively wreak havoc on the boards and make life even tougher down low.

They are the hottest team right now but SMB can’t expect Blackwater to roll over for them. Nevertheless, their advantage in individual skill and team execution should net them their eight win and clinch the top two standing.

TIME: 4:15 PM

Featured Image Credit: Klent Clever Cruz, Sports5